Baz Luhrmann falls into a trap in his dazzling, ambitious but shallow biopic.

Reviews by Joyce Glasser elvis (June 24, 2022) Certificate 12A, 160 min.

Based on the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and the Elton John biopic, rocket Mancomes elvisBaz Luhrmann’s (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge) Biopic about the Elvis who doesn’t need a last name. elvis matches its predecessors in energy and epic proportions, but lacks their sense of fun, drama and focus on the music. The ambitious cradle-to-grave tale, narrated by Presley’s raunchy manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), has Luhrmann connecting the dots with frenetic pace rather than the screen with emotional substance and depth and the grimy physicality of the king’s slow demise to fill.

Presley’s raunchy manager Colonel Tom Parker is the film’s unreliable narrator, who is neither a real Colonel, nor a Tom, nor a Parker. The fairground crier, who like other showmen presented country western acts like Hank Snow (David Wenham) in the 1930s, also had no ear for music. Unfortunately, we get as little insight into Parker as we do into Elvis.

In short, Parker is a raunchy opportunist who was in the right place at the right time, telling a vulnerable, dirt-poor talent who was desperate to buy his mother a house, which is what he wanted to hear. Parker tells us, “I am the man who gave the world Elvis Presley. But there are people who would make me the big villain in the story.’

Flashback to Elvis (Chaydon Jay) who spends the first thirteen years of his life in a black neighborhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, witnesses the frenzy of singing and dancing in the Pentecostal revival tents, and then moves to Memphis, Tennessee, where he’s imbibing land music and fuses it with African American rhythm and blues. In 1954, Presley (now played by Austin Butler) records with former DJ and record producer Sam Phillips, who sows the seeds of rock ‘n’ roll and has amateurs from all backgrounds – like Otis Redding – recording in his studio.

Parker first learns about the 19-year-old’s ability to draw crowds from Hank Smith’s son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee, devastated) when Elvis arrives at the Louisiana Hayride with fellow band members guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Parker says to Jimmie, “You don’t put a colored boy on the hay wagon?”

The scene where Parker, reeling in the shadows, sees Presley on stage for the first time – and the audience reaction – is terrific. Here’s his dream: a white boy who sounds and moves like he’s black, making gay boys and straight girls swoon while their mothers pretend to disapprove of him.

The middle part races along like in a fairy tale. Parker promises Elvis the moon, and the Presley family credits Elvis’ meteoric rise — a game of cat-and-mouse between censoring local governments and police, and Elvis’ determination to express himself — to Parker. Parker realizes that Elvis is “forbidden fruit” and the more fuss is made about his scandalous moves, the more tickets are sold.

As the film makes clear, Elvis is very close to his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson), whose only child is all the more precious as the surviving twin. Perhaps it’s her suffocating love he seeks on stage, and perhaps Gladys’ early death from a heart attack while Presley is serving in Germany is the result of the stresses of separation. As Elvis leaves Parker on his first road trip, he assures her that, as his spineless father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) predicts, the whole celebrity thing will “probably be over in no time.” But Gladys is more worried about the hungry crowds “coming between us.”

In an interesting dialogue, we learn that Parker’s Carnie Act, Hank Smith, has allowed Elvis to record and perform all of his songs on the condition that there are no “spins.” Along the way we see Elvis singing the provocative hunting dog after seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s (Yola) performance, and that he picks up moves from Little Richard (Alton Mason) and advice from his friend BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), with whom he hangs out on Beale Street in Memphis. The Beale Street scene is a montage embellished with a little dialogue rather than dramatized conversations.

Two white, Jewish Northerners, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, wrote hunting dogand went on to write four more songs, including Jailhouse Rock for Presley, but they are not mentioned. There is also no mention of where his songs came from, what Presley added to the songs in the recording studio, or why he didn’t take BB King’s advice to start his own label.

The purchase of Graceland (Elvis keeps his promise to his mother), Presley being trafficked to Germany for military service instead of going to prison at the height of his fame, his meeting and marriage to Priscilla (Olivia Dejonge), an army officer’s daughter , are swept through in a series of montages. So it’s Elvis’ film career that dominates the 1960s, if his cheesy films please Blue Hawaii (in competition with psycho, dr Strangelove, A Fist Full of Dollars, Lawrence of Arabia, The Misfits etc.) leave him exhausted and demoralized. The soundtrack albums fail to register in the charts. We never see Presley’s depression and the toll of his marriage.

Parker devises a sponsored TV Christmas special to jumpstart Presley’s sagging career. Much fuss is made about the tension between the divergent approach of Elvis’ young, hip producer Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) and Colonel Tom’s commitments to the sponsors. Elvis oozes sexuality in his 1968 comeback special, playing his guitar in tight black leather to a small crowd and getting his recording career back on track. But luck doesn’t last long, and not just because Elvis can’t tour abroad due to Parker’s immigration status. Behind his back and relying on the ignorance of his business manager father, Vernon, Parker locks Elvis into a grueling, long-term contract in Vegas, a deal that will write off Parker’s gambling debts. Not known for his subtlety, Luhrmann stages a haunting performance of Caught in a trap when we learn that Presley doesn’t have enough money to buy Parker.

Austin Butler moves, sings and dubs (all Vegas songs are the originals) impressively, but he doesn’t have time to show off the acting that wowed audiences who saw him on stage The Iceman is coming on Broadway across from Denzel Washington. The thick suit and heavy make-up don’t convey how fat, sick and pathetic the real Elvis was in his final years of performing non-stop in Vegas. His reliance on the drugs that killed him to keep up the relentless routine and fight his misfortune after Priscilla left is barely mentioned, perhaps to earn a 12A rating. It is Luhrmann who falls into a trap. Elvis is a tragedy, one directed by Luhrmann Romeo and Julietrecognizes but cannot bring to life.

Baz Luhrmann falls into a trap in his dazzling, ambitious but shallow biopic.

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