A spoiler-free review of Elvis’ new movie
The king is dead, long live the king…
“I’m not really an Elvis fan,” my wife said as we entered the Dubai Opera before the gala screening of this new biopic directed by Baz Luhrmann. And I suspect that will probably be the case for many people who head to the cinema to see this film over the next few months, especially since he died before many box office regulars were born (1977) .
But you rarely go to the movies for the explicit love of a subject, it’s more often the plot thread that unfolds there that draws you to the screen. And the rhinestone-studded thread of ElvisOut in cinemas across the UAE from Friday June 24, it looks like it could lead all the way to next year’s Oscars.
It’s a film that occupies a contradictory space, it’s both Baz Luhrmann at the top Baz Luhrmann and like he’s never done before. The love and celebration of the music is front and center, we’re rushed through the blaze of neon lights, blinding lights and dazzling costumes – but those comedic asides from Baz Shakespeare are almost completely absent and at times, especially the big ones shows, it feels like we’re watching documentary footage.
Caught in a trap
The story begins with brief flashbacks to Elvis’ early life, growing up in a white working-class family in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee. We see him fall in love with the culture of this neighborhood – the music, the gospel services, the fashion and the people.
As the record progresses, audiences have no doubt that these particular experiential grooves are some of the most powerfully formative in Elvis history.
While working as a truck driver, Elvis recorded a track with Sun Studio, ‘Its good‘ – which brings him to the attention of ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks), a cantankerous carnival promoter with an eye for talent who can captivate audiences. He sees in Elvis, a pelvis-turning golden goose, a sensual thirst trap for a generation of teenagers who, for the first time in history, have purchasing power, and thus promises the young star a life of fame and fortune if he takes him as manager.
And it’s not a spoiler to reveal he’s abiding by that deal, Elvis, we’re told in the film’s textual epilogue, remains the best-selling solo artist of all time. But the means and methods that Colonel Tom employs to bring him there present him as a “devil in disguise”. Short narrative interludes are actually told by Parker, as his own death draws near, and amount to feverish pleas of innocence, which the rest of the film savors unraveling.
you can’t go out
While the relationship between Elvis and the Colonel, and the trajectories, decisions, and conflicts that ensue are central to the film, they aren’t the only playground for expertly crafted drama. We’re given front row seats to see Elvis rocked by landmark events such as the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., he’s devastated by the death of his mother, and inspired by contemporary legends including BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
We are shown the void of space that surrounded the first truly global megastar, what happens when that star’s fire begins to wane, and the astral collapse triggered by the stage lights going out.
But beyond that, there are pervasive reminders that Elvis’ story is set against the backdrop of and in response to a tumultuous time in American history. Indeed, “you can’t tell the story of Elvis Presley without talking about race” Baz Luhrmann told us in an interview before the release of the film “no race in America, no Elvis”.
‘Cause I love you too much baby…
From childhood to death, the disc takes you through a condensed collection of many major chapters in Elvis’ life, and excluding the early years when the role was played by Chaydon Jay, our guide is Austin Butler.
Though the likeness is casual, Butler’s performance, his King of Rock and Roll attire, represents nothing less than an iconic possession. It’s no ‘Stars in their eyes‘ impersonation, tonight Matthew – Austin actually IS Elvis. And this link, between the study and the student, which has been created through the intense search for character, the realization of the synergy of charisma, voice, fire and the magnetism of the intangible pheromone screen – is the kind that will surely stay with him, in some residual form, for the rest of his life.
Those who orbit the star don’t do so in the shadows – Olivia De Jong’s Priscilla Presley is flawless and radiant, Hanks as the twinkling-eyed Colonel is delightfully contemptuous and still relatively human. Perhaps it’s character development, where Luhrmann lets out his Shakespeare.
Verdict: This is a movie only Baz could make. It starts in a carnival, the protagonists’ lives are a circus, and when the credits roll – you’re left with the unwavering feeling you’ve just witnessed a Vegas-level spectacle. Viva Baz Luhrmann.
Elvis has now been released in cinemas in the United Arab Emirates. Book your tickets here