THB #173: Elvis
Elvis is as much a theme park ride as it is a movie.
Strap in. Pull down your emotional restraints. And let Baz Luhrmann tell you a story you probably think you have already heard.
It’s Tom Hanks, as our narrator Colonel Tom Parker (neither a Colonel or a Parker), that defines the journey. His accent and affect are so strong at first that you can’t be sure whether to take any of this seriously. But as he talks and talks and talks, you stop considering the affect and start hearing the story.
If you can’t make that leap, you will stay on the outside of Elvis and never really engage.
If you can make that leap, you are in for 2 hours and 39 minutes of bouncing and bopping and displaying and hiding and lying and drugging and wondering - from the very beginning (January 8, 1935) to the very end (August 16, 1977) - whether Elvis was really lucky by nature or if he was wholly created. Or both. At the same time.
Luhrmann starts the movie (along with co-screenwriters Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce) with the roots of Elvis… black american music. At a time when there seems to be endless arguing - even by those on the same side - about how to engage cultural appropriation, Luhrmann finds a perfect balance.
Elvis was inspired, says the movie, the way a great classical musician is inspired by long dead composers and performers from the past. He stole, in a way. But he wasn’t a thief. He was the ultimate fan. And he stayed that passionate fan through all of his years. Even his version of God Bless America came right out of the church, mixed as only he could with his unique voice.
Elvis’ power over women, which was hinted at with Sinatra, we saw with The Beatles, and currently see with K-Pop band BTS, was a newly unrestrained phenomenon in his time. He broke ground that was backstage forever, but was now communal. Even in a 70s-set movie like Almost Famous, the groupie energy was still a private thing, 20 years after every woman seemingly wanted a piece of Elvis’s little more action. How many times can you read anything about Elvis without his grinding hips being mentioned early and often?
The Colonel… at least this version of The Colonel…
… understood the circus of it all. He understood the product. He understood the potential. Understanding the boy who would quickly become a man was part of the job… or at least understanding him enough to control a power that Elvis himself never seemed to quite understand.
Watching this movie is like being the pinball in the world’s best run on a pinball machine. Two and a half hours bouncing from one bumper to the other, occasionally falling into a slot where you can rest for a moment.. then propelled at full speed in an unexpected direction… about to go down the drain… No! saved by the flipper… it’s Sam Phillips… it’s Mama… it’s television… it’s the army… it’s Priscilla… it’s Hollywood… it’s Vegas… BING, BONG, BAM, BOING… on and on we go.
And as The Colonel explains to Elvis what he wants him to believe, he explains it to us too… and it all actually almost makes sense. In the meanwhile, the music. That voice. Those clothes. Those eyes. Those hips.
The genius of Luhrmann is that he finds ways, wild and subtle, to show up Elvis’ issues with women, with drugs, and with his desperation without making it a movie about women, drugs, and desperation.
It’s a movie about a man with an extreme gift, a wonderful inspiration, a support system he didn’t want but which forced him to live up to and reach beyond his potential, and the fate of burning so brightly for so long (we forget how rare and life-defining 20 years of high-end fame really is) that by the time he was 40, he just didn’t have the will to carry it anymore… just as Mama worried he wouldn’t. Just like Mama didn’t.
But again, Luhrmann doesn’t make a movie about “Fat Elvis.” He doesn’t avoid it completely. But this is not a movie about the worst of Elvis… or really, the best of Elvis. It is includes both and it limits both.
It is a movie about the person who was Elvis’ biggest fan (in this conceit) and the many ways he saw Elvis, his glory and his simple humanity.
As a result, the form of Luhrmann’s Elvis odyssey is like a 2 hour, 39 minute dream, full of truth and lies, memories and ideas that may just be imagined.
I loved the movie more and more as it progressed. And I can’t wait to see it again.
Ans now you have read my review. Thank you very much.
I have left the auditorium… until tomorrow…