Cannes Review: Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ Is an Exhilarating, Maddening Spectacle
Baz Luhrmann’s movies—even the great ones, like his 1996 Shakespeare-via-Tiger BeatRomance Romeo and JulietOder The Great Gatsby from 2013, a fringed shimmy of decadence and loneliness—are loathed by many for what they see as the director’s garishness, his adoration of spectacle, his penchant for headache-inducing, mincemeat-and-glitter editing. But in 2022, in a culture where long-form series storytelling reigns supreme, Luhrmann’s devotion to two-and-a-half-hour bursts of excess is pleasingly old-fashioned, like a confetti blast from a cannon at a county fair. It’s true that his movies don’t always work, or rarely work all the way though, and that’s certainly the case with Elvis,The 75th Cannes Film Festival saw him in a sequin-trimmed jumpsuit as he competed for a biopic. At times it’s barely a movie—the first hour or so is exceptionally fragmented and frenetic, as if Luhrmann were time-traveling through a holographic rendering of Elvis Presley’s life, dipping and darting through the significant events with little time to touch down. Through all of the deceitful overindulgences, there’s one truth. Luhrmann is so in love with Elvis that it hurts. And in a world where there’s always, supposedly, a constant stream of new things to love, or at least to binge-watch, love of Elvis—our American pauper king with a cloth-of-gold voice—feels like a truly pure thing.
Luhrmann and his co-writers Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce use the story of Elvis’ supremely crooked manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, lurking beneath prosthetic jowls), to frame the larger, more glorious and more tragic story of Elvis. Though he was born in Tupelo, Mississippi—his identical twin, Jesse Garon, died at birth—Elvis grew up poor in Memphis, adoring and being adored by his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson). Luhrmann shows Elvis in his pre-adolescence, when he splits his time between the juke joints and the revival tent further down. Too young to be allowed into the first, Elvis could only see through the crack in the wall. He was also entranced and enthralled by the Black-blues performers inside. These are the twin poles of young Elvis’ life, the foundation for all that came after, and Luhrmann connects them in one extremely stylized shot: in ElvisBlues and gospel are connected literally by one dirt road. The junior Elvis travels freely between the two, taking in deeply from each well and then moving on to the next.
His rise happens quickly, and before you know it, he’s become the Elvis we know, or the one we think we know: he’s played by Austin Butler, who goes beyond merely replicating Elvis’ signature moves (though he’s terrific at that); he seems to be striving to conjure some phantasmal fingerprint. For long stretches of the movie, Butler’s Elvis doesn’t really have many lines: we see him, in his pre-fame years, jumping out of the truck he drives for a living and walking down a Memphis street, swinging a guitar in one hand a lunchbox in the other. Is this what Elvis did in his real life? Doubtful. But isn’t it exactly what you want to see in a movie?
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Before long, our movie Elvis has landed a slot performing on the Louisiana Hayride, and Sam Phillips over at Sun Studios—who specializes in “race records,” music made by Black performers—takes a chance on him at the behest of his assistant, Marion Keisker, who hears something in the kid. Elvis makes a record. Then he’s jiggling onstage in a loose pink suit, its supple fabric hiding more than it reveals, but even so, the world gets a hint at the secrets contained therein. Both the girls and most of them go crazy.
Butler conjures the guilelessness of Elvis’ face, his soft yet chiseled cheekbones, the look in his eyes that says, “I’m up for anything—are you?” He and Luhrmann hop through the major events of Presley’s life, sometimes going for long stretches without taking a breath. Elvis is exhausting, a mess; it’s also exhilarating, a crazy blur you can’t look away from. (Catherine Martin’s costume and production design is, as always, exemplary—period-perfect but also brushed with imaginative flourishes.) Elvis, who was lured to the Lansky Brothers by B.B., is seen there shopping. King Kelvin Harrison Jr. shops at the Lansky Brothers. He succumbs to Colonel Parker’s dangerous manipulatives, then kicks against them later, especially as he performs the 1968 special. (He was supposed to put on a garish Christmas sweater and sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” not become the stuff of legend in a black leather suit that, you just know, would be hot to the touch if only you could get close enough to it.)
We all know that Elvis loses the fight. Colonel Parker sends a quack known as Dr. Nick to pump him full of drugs, to keep him on his feet even as he’s going out of his mind. This tragedy only escalates. Is Luhrmann trying to show us the true Elvis or just repeating the Elvis we already know? Luhrmann appears to believe that myth and reality have equal worth. But ElvisAlthough most people know the facts, there are still moments that make it seem like something is missing. When Elvis’ long-suffering wife Priscilla (played by Olivia DeJonge) finally leaves him, he chases after her, rushing down the staircase at Graceland in pants and a purple robe, a drugged-out mess. She can’t take it anymore; she’s got to leave, and she’s taking little Lisa Marie with her. Elvis stands in his bare feet and begs her to not go. And when he realizes he can’t stop her, he says, more in defeat than in hopefulness, “When you’re 40 and I’m 50, we’ll be back together—you’ll see.” Even if Elvis never really uttered that line, its map of romantic longing had long been written in his voice. It was in Elvis, when Butler sings, it’s Elvis’ voice that streams out, in lustrous ribbons of recklessness, of ardor, of hope for the future. This voice holds all the joys and sorrows that life can offer.
Continue reading: He’ll Always Be Elvis: Remembering the ‘King’ 40 Years On
If the trailer is Elvis was released, a few months back, the responses on social media, and among people I know, ranged from “That looks unhinged! I’m dying to see it!” to “I can’t even look at that thing,” to “What accent, exactly, is Tom Hanks trying to achieve?” (The movie, incidentally, explains the unidentifiable diction of this man without a country, and probably without a soul.) In the movie’s last moments, Luhrmann recreates one of the saddest Elvis remnants, a live performance of “Unchained Melody” from June of 1977, just two months before his death. Butler is sitting at a piano cluttered with Coca Cola glasses and an old terrycloth towel. The song, a swallow’s swoop of longing, begins pouring out of Elvis’s wrecked body—but as we watch, Luhrmann pulls a mystical switch, and footage of the real Elvis replaces the magnificent Butler-as-Elvis doppelgänger we’ve been watching. For a few confusing moments, the real Elvis is no longer a ghost—he has returned to us, an actor playing himself, and we see that as good as that Butler kid was, there’s no comparison to the real thing.
The relief can be fleeting. Elvis has been gone more than 40-years. IsNo matter how hard Butler and Luhrmann tried, a ghost is still a ghost. There is one consolation: When a person ceases to be a human being, it is possible for him to dream. The final seconds of Elvis,Luhrmann releases his fish caught and returns the beloved subject to his home. “Lonely rivers flow/to the sea, to the sea,” the song tells us, as the true Elvis swims back to his home of safety—he’s better off as a dream, maybe, safe from everyone who might hurt or use him. For a short time, however, he appeared to walk again among us, something no one could believe even though we told them. We saw him. It was true. Then he disappeared, happy with our claim on him and our love.
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