Elvis

Elvis

Elvis, a Disrespected Phenomenon.
Baz Luhrmann’s shameless comic-book biopic.

Baz Luhrmann presents Elvis Presley like a comic-book superhero. His gaudy biopic Elvis even includes a sequence of comic-book panels: Baz-Elvis the hero transforms from a mild-mannered Mississippi truck driver who sang and played guitar into a flamboyant Elton John or Liberace-style alter ego. Inspiration from sensual black blues and raucous black gospel makes Baz-Elvis a cultural avatar in the manner of both Martin Luther nailing revolutionary theses to public consciousness and Martin Luther King Jr. upsetting racial segregationists while making women scream hysterically. Naïve Baz-Elvis is seen as a Galatea figure manipulated by a shifty Pygmalion, Colonel Tom Parker, so devious and commanding that Baz-Elvis’s final incarnation recalls the pathetic, self-destructive Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane.

This shameless cultural jumble might make some kind of crazy sense for anyone who still thinks Presley the figurehead of pop vulgarity. That position has many successors, and Luhrmann is one of them. His disregard for truth, history, and taste is a mark of contemporary absurdity, and in Elvis it overwhelms his subject.

Luhrmann’s latest pastiche follows the deliberate inaccuracies and anachronisms of Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, and The Great Gatsby. That those lousy films were popular hits seems to fulfill the Y2K prediction of cultural collapse. Audiences who knew nothing about the Belle Époque, Shakespeare, or Fitzgerald didn’t care, and Luhrmann uncannily played to their ignorance.

Luhrmann’s style jumps from one exaggeration to another, zipping through poor-white class issues, past the European-based Army stint and the legendary acquisitive status (a fuchsia Cadillac rather than a pink one). Knowing anything about Presley’s life means you watch Baz-Elvis’s rise to fame the way opera fans recollect a libretto during a pretentious restaging. Luhrmann’s version, with Elvis played by Austin Butler, who does the alluring eyes, modest snarl, and loose-limbed jitterbug moves, is cartoonish and sentimental, unlike the good 1980 Kurt Russell–John Carpenter TV version. But it resembles parody so much that a kind of tickled bemusement is the only way to respond to its blatant inauthenticity.

Luhrmann’s style jumps from one exaggeration to another, zipping through poor-white class issues, past the European-based Army stint and the legendary acquisitive status (a fuchsia Cadillac rather than a pink one). Knowing anything about Presley’s life means you watch Baz-Elvis’s rise to fame the way opera fans recollect a libretto during a pretentious restaging. Luhrmann’s version, with Elvis played by Austin Butler, who does the alluring eyes, modest snarl, and loose-limbed jitterbug moves, is cartoonish and sentimental, unlike the good 1980 Kurt Russell–John Carpenter TV version. But it resembles parody so much that a kind of tickled bemusement is the only way to respond to its blatant inauthenticity.

Baz-Elvis’s introduction to blacks dancing in a juke joint is intercut with a tent revival where he gets the “spirit.” Luhrmann shifts from ersatz Southern life to a subculture where exotic-looking blacks (wailing from fake Mahalia and Rosetta Tharpe figures) bear little resemblance to African-American physiognomy or temperament. Older Baz-Elvis laments, “That’s the music that makes me happy,” yet we never see him record gospel. Luhrmann quickly drops the religious ruse.

In this alternate-universe mid-century America, Baz-Elvis has no moral grounding, making him subject to temptation by the Colonel, whom Tom Hanks plays as LBJ, Satan, and Sydney Greenstreet. An enigmatic exploiter (hissing the world “merchandise” as if he invented it), the Colonel is a weirdly accented Lars Von Trier freak whose bloated malevolence threatens to overtake the movie. His catchphrase “art of the snow job” reveals more cheapness. It’s Luhrmann’s attempt to vilify what used to be considered Trump’s gold-toilet vulgarity — even though Elvis (starting with its kitschy title-sequence design) indicates that Luhrmann’s bad taste is conceptual, Kardashian.

The frenzy that confirmed Presley as the nexus of race, sex, and pop-culture change gives Luhrmann his best moments — when concertgoers and TV-watchers are all shocked and thrilled. “I don’t know what to think!” says Jimmie Rodgers (Kodi Smit-McPhee), simultaneously amazed and aroused. And Luhrmann is similarly confounded, never able to connect the pressure of world-conquering fame to self-realization. His centerpiece — The Elvis Presley Movie — condenses the singer’s mostly lousy Hollywood career to a vignette, featuring an astonishingly exact digital re-creation of Sixties photochemical color processing.

That sequence is worth an Oscar. Still (a Ken Russell show-off minus the genius), it’s absolutely clear that Luhrmann knows nothing about artistic expression. The film concludes with meandering scenes of Baz-Elvis and the Colonel arguing with sponsors over a TV Christmas show that eventually became the famous 1968 comeback special. Convictionless scenes of his marital dissolution with Priscilla and suspicious scenes where the Las Vegas casino residency becomes a lifetime prison sentence pad the narrative without illuminating the paradoxes. Fat Elvis finally makes his appearance as a corruption of his youthful aspiration, reaching toward redemption with a desperate rendition of “Unchained Melody.”

How could we expect that unreliable chronicler Baz Luhrmann to seriously represent Presley’s life story and simultaneous social changes, when the story of America’s cultural legacy is collapsing around us? The comic-book concept makes Elvis a revisionist text, alienating us from the story in the same outrageous manner as the uprooting of our political and ethical heritage. The ironies that overwhelmed Presley, Garland, Brando, Michael Jackson, and Orson Welles — that made them all phenomenal and doomed — are missing. That’s how Luhrmann pays his ultimate disrespect.

www.nationalreview.com/2022/06/elvis-a-disrespected-phenomenon/