Some thoughts on Elvis (2022)

I was dreading Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. A long time ago, I had written my own Elvis project, and had done a deep dive into his life and work. I’ve watched a lot of Elvis-related movies (including all 33 of Elvis’s own movies), and the trailers for Luhrmann’s gonzo spectacle were a severe turn-off for me. But enough friends of mine had positive things to say about it that I thought I’d give it a chance.Almost immediately, I fell in love. I have lots and lots of quibbles about this and that, but the important thing is that Luhrmann’s understanding of Elvis, his art, his story, and his place in the American pantheon of great 20th-century artists, is the same as mine.Most people my age and younger experienced Elvis’s career backwards: when I was a child, Presley was a joke, a has-been, a bloated cartoon character adored by yokels and middle-aged women. He wore the gaudy jumpsuits and did his lame kung-fu moves, and recycled his ancient hits with blaring, Vegas arrangements that deprived the music of any of its original power. Elvis was sentimental, hollow and tasteless, and, when he died in 1977, it felt like more of a relief than a tragedy: at last, the empty, spangled parade float of his career was put out of its misery.Most of the movies made about Elvis begin with the same philosophy: start with the spectacle, never the art. In most Elvis projects, Elvis is a pawn, a wild animal, a naive wild card, a crazed lunatic, a wayward soul, a victim of greed, but never a serious artist. Luhrmann’s Elvis is the first project I’ve seen that actually takes Elvis serious as an artist, as a real, honest-to-goodness musician with a vision and artistic goals. It places Elvis in the context of his times, something that’s impossible to do when you start with his jumpsuits and drug use and work backwards.I had a number of misgivings about Austin Butler’s performance in the first hour or so of the movie, but all those doubts evaporated when it came time to the 1968 comeback special, where he not only was able to match (or at least approximate) Elvis’s incredible energy and handsomeness of that time, but also get across the very serious, very important artistic thrust of that show. Because while the show looks like old television to us now, it was absolutely a bolt from the blue in its time, a radical, bizarre, soulful and crucial turning point in Elvis’s career. And yes, Robert Kennedy really was killed while they were shooting the special, and yes, Col Tom really did have a heart attack when Elvis refused to sing Christmas songs in front of a fireplace. The emphasis the movie gives to the creation of that special is pitch-perfect, and the dramatization of events that led to Elvis singing “If I Can Dream,” along with Butler’s pantomime of Elvis’s performance of that number, had me sobbing for minutes on end. Not weeping, or choked up, but openly, audibly sobbing. Elvis’s message for the special was “I am still here, and still relevant,” and he thought it was vital that he close the show with some sort of statement on all the things that were happening in 1968. The fact that he chose “If I Can Dream” not only puts an exclamation point on the show, but also cements his point of view on the world. Everything that Elvis ever dreamed came true, a million times over, so if he could dream of a better world, why couldn’t that dream also come true? The answer is, of course, that Elvis was but a man, a mere singer (how ironic the show was sponsored by Singer), and had no power to shape current events. The repeated question, “why can’t this happen,” shows the song to be a prayer, both a pleading and an insistence. The repetition of the question reveals that the singer knows the answer but must still ask the question. Luhrmann’s movie gets across all that artistic turmoil without ever having to state any of it. The same goes for the construction of Elvis’s Vegas shows of 1969: while people my age were repulsed by the 1970s Elvis, Luhrmann’s movie places those decisions in context as well: as deliberate artistic choices made by a valid musical force who was looking for answers. He dressed like a superhero because he thought of himself as Captain Marvel (or Shazam, as he’s called now). (The lightning bolt from his TCB logo was lifted directly from Captain Marvel’s suit.) The splashy Vegas arrangements of ancient blues songs weren’t meant as a cheapening of an authentic musical form, they were meant to spread the message on the largest canvas available, and the movie brilliantly brings those decisions to life, drawing a direct line from Elvis overhearing Arthur Crudup sing “That’s All Right” in a Mississippi whorehouse to Elvis belting it out on the biggest stage in Vegas: not a cheapening, but, in Elvis’s eyes, an exaltation, a spreading of the gospel.As with any bio-pic, events are simplified and motivations are overstated. Luhrmann is, after all, the opposite of a subtle director. Overstatement is the water he swims in. If he wants to make a narrative point, he doesn’t just underline it, he underlines it, in italics, then draws a circle around it, then draws a bunch of arrows pointing to it, then states it again for the people who didn’t catch it the first five times. The difference between Luhrmann and, say, Oliver Stone, another director with a penchant for overstatement, is that Luhrmann understands cinematic narrative in a way that no other director does, and his bag of tricks is vast and endlessly malleable. He compresses time as all bio-pics do, but does it in a dazzling, fluid, exciting way, with tons of information going on all the time in every corner of the screen. His goal is to catch you up in the sheer giddy pleasure of images, over and over again, to get you drunk on the sheer spectacle of ideas unfolding. After seeing his Great Gatsby, I thought, well, that’s not the movie I would have made, but, well, it’s The Great Gatsby, you can’t look at it and say he betrayed the author. He didn’t destroy Fitzgerald, he just put it in neon. Just as Elvis turned the blues into a Vegas spectacle because he wanted to preach to the largest possible crowd, Luhrmann wanted to make sure that Gatsby, a fragile, tender, interior novel about sadness and regret, into a mind-blowing spectacle, because he truly loved the material and wanted people to see it.And, while I can’t say I fully understand what Tom Hanks is doing in the movie, with his bizarre accent and weird prosthetics, his Col Tom is, by far, the most humane, most nuanced portrayal of the old Mephistopheles I’ve ever seen. It still astonishes me that Col Tom referred to himself as “the king of the snowmen,” and had a banner hanging in his office advertising it. How many devils tell you to your face that they are a devil? Even Donald Trump didn’t say “vote for me, I’m a con man here to take your money.” And yet, Col Tom STARTED with that pitch. He introduced himself, advertised himself as a carny man, a man who literally spray-painted sparrows and sold them as canaries. When I wrote my Elvis musical (with incredible songs written by Chuck Montgomery, who also played Elvis), I could not explain in the time given why Col Tom had such a hold on Elvis, so I instead I made him a hypnotist. I gave him a jeweled-top cane that he used like Jafar’s staff in Aladdin. Luhrmann finally gives Col Tom an actual dramatization of his relationship with Elvis, showing him as both the father figure Elvis couldn’t find in his own father, a confidante who understood Elvis’s desperate need for attention, and, most importantly, a man whose only goal was profit. In the great American story of Elvis’s life, Col Tom is the vital component: the capitalist greed that destroys everything it touches.By the end of the movie I was an emotional wreck, not merely because the movie got so much right about the tragedy of Elvis, but because I was seeing a movie that I wish I’d been able to write.

107Shannon Sollman, Robert Sikoryak and 105 others36 Comments4 Shares