A glorious, pumped-up, visual narrative
Get angry, get sad, get excited and pumped-up – whichever way you respond to Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, first thing’s first: get on board.
Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his flamboyant cinematic style, not only modernising classic texts such as Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby for new generations of visual-narrative gluttons, but completely pimping them up. Give the man a bit of glitz and watch him sparkle all over the place, which is exactly what happens in his much-hyped latest, Elvis.
The film is narrated by Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by a heavily made-up Tom Hanks, and their meeting at a carnival – the setting eerie and fantastical, gaudy and compelling – is a perfect way to showcase the man who was arguably the greatest snowman on earth. The two meet in a house of mirrors, and the slo-mo and angles are unsettling, the thousands of reflecting lightbulbs disorienting and dazzling. It’s a scene that sets the tone of ‘don’t do it, Elvis!’ and it’s brilliant. But Elvis doesn’t see the warning signs we do. He sees a man who will make him a star and all he really wants to do is play music. You could say it was a match made in heaven, but you might be wrong. The film suggests hell to be closer to the truth.
Based on the magnificent rise of Elvis’s career to his disastrous end as a bloated and drug-addled Vegas has-been, it’s hard to tell what’s true and false in this story about the shady relationship between the Colonel and Elvis (the latter played by a broody and dreamy Austin Butler) because Luhrmann works heavily and masterfully with symbolism. Meshing Elvis’s songs with rap, for instance, when the scene takes place in an African American section of a city is both inspired and completely out-of-the-box. It’s very ‘Baz’. This particular example also shows the racial structures of the time to be relevant to our own today, so it’s politically clever, too. (The film both is and is not about race, just as Elvis was.)
Some will find Luhrmann’s interpretation too big, too much, but Elvis, technically, did it first. The glitter jumpsuits, the capes – truly he was a character Luhrmann could work with. But it’s the Colonel’s movie, in many ways, and though he’s an old and overweight hustler with shifty eyes and a Dutch accent who cares nothing about rock ‘n’ roll or about ‘his boy’, he can be made into a myth, too.
Elvis only glamourises the singer’s career through the lifestyle, the clothes, the money – the cinema – but the core story is a quieter one, filled with pathos.
Reviewed by Heather Taylor Johnson
Elvis opens June 23rd