Updated: Jul 5, 2022
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Last week I expressed my inability to differentiate Tom Cruise ‘the weirdo’ from Tom Cruise the action hero. Cognitive dissonance? ‘Suspension of disbelief’ is the movie-world term.
The job is, of course, always made much harder when you have an incredibly high profile actor in a role. You frequently go to see that actor because you like them, and can never quite completely melt into the narrative as it is Our Cate playing a young Queen 'Elizabeth' 1 or Marlon Brando playing ‘The Godfather’.
Luhrmann’s choice of Austin Butler to play Elvis is masterly. Not instantly recognisable to many adults who are old enough to have formed a deep memory of the original Elvis (though more known to a younger audience), Butler’s transformation into Elvis is definitely believable. Strangely, Tom Hanks, fat suit and prosthetics aside, absolutely dissolved for me into the character of the Colonel. Not that Elvis is a realistic biopic – it’s a heist pulled off by that shaman showman Luhrmann; as one dimensional, dazzling and bad for our teeth as is his framing of the greedy, manipulative and unsavoury Colonel. ‘Take their money and leave them smiling' is his motto…and make them want more, I might add.
The patina of Elvis is predominantly tacky opulence; over-greased hair, over grown sideburns (late 50’s 60’s and early 70’s – a costume designers and stylist’s dream), and not just set in pink Cadillac America, but in flashing lights Las Vegas. Disneyland for adults, and a Graceland, Memphis that is almost as lavish.
A film critic accused Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ of being superficial in portrayal. Of course it is. Not only is it our musical cinema master’s style to hover over a wonderfully stylised and sparkling surface, it is also Luhrmann’s linear and accelerating life portrayal of a uniquely talented and charismatic young man, from dirt poor to ludicrously wealthy; a life trajectory lived in a synthetic bubble that ended at 42 years-of-age as a bloated adult with an overblown prescription drug habit.
The time of Elvis’ drafted years in the US military, linked to the repressive politics of the time and its belief that Elvis was a threat to common decency is an insight, though I don’t know if it is historically verified. Not highlighted, but noted was the somewhat questionable behaviour of a 24-year-old soldier wooing a 14-year-old school girl (Priscilla played by Olivia DeJonge).
Priscilla, in fact, is the character that reminds us that this young man who came from poverty did not have any stable life-style touchstone with which he could compare his life as it began to increasingly spin out-of-control. Contentment and ‘enough’ were not part of the journey that this ridiculously handsome (in his youth) superstar actually ever experienced. Elvis’ life was an ever-accelerating trajectory of drug-fuelled performance and unparalleled adulation. If the boy felt down, there was always ‘Dr Nick’ to pep him up or knock him out, and any number of screaming fans to make him feel like a god.
The manipulation by the Colonel and an exploration of the Colonels’ life is a bit of a creative coup, and on par with Luhrmann’s examination of the life of Elvis in all its dazzling emptiness. This old man made a king’s fortune from his time with Elvis and then fed it all through pokie machines in Las Vegas, till he died.
Recommended for the glitz, the music and the cinematic grease-paint we have come to expect of Luhrmann, the life story of ‘Elvis’ could well be his perfect style vehicle.
Dazzle and tragedy, I foresee 'Elvis the Opera'. You saw it here first :)