A superhero of music
Star, make-up, business: Baz Luhrmann’s magnetic film about Elvis Presley is enlightenment about a myth and great, essential cinema
It was one of the most impressive screenings at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and without question one of the highlights of this year on the Croisette – and perhaps even of cinema year 2022. And if the Australian Baz Luhrmann hasn’t done it twice before – with Moulin Rouge and with The Great Gatsby – would have opened Cannes, maybe he should have done it this time too. In any case would be Elvis in its combination of star cinema and auteur film, show business and its abysmal reflection, of music and melodrama, has been perfect for this Mecca of cinema.
This film is a fairground film and spectacle of attractions in its purest form – in short: essential cinema.
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Decades after his untimely death in the summer of 1977, it is impossible to even begin to appreciate the impact Elvis Presley had on his contemporaries in the 1950s, or to imagine the scope of the cultural revolution that “Elvis” meant in his day.
In a way, the singer and his songs have become part of the collective unconscious: his hair, his voice, his suits, and even the costumes that still seem absurd today at the end of his career have taken on mythological contours.
The curious thing is that such a magnetic figure, associated with the image of anti-authoritarianism and revolt against the parent generation, has spent her life under the control of a strange surrogate father, who could be addressed as “Colonel Parker”, and as a manager of the artist already made it a “brand” when Elvis was still completely unknown.
It was Parker who created the worldwide phenomenon known as “Elvis Presley,” who turned the young man into a veritable money machine and continued to exploit him both financially and psychologically well into his untimely death at the age of 42.
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It is quite appropriate that the main character of this film, despite its title, is Colonel Parker, and that she is played by the best-known actor in the ensemble, world star Tom Hanks, who also succeeds here under his affable, friendly »all american« surface to add a demonic shimmering component.
But the Australian director Baz Luhrmann is not interested in morals in this film either, but rather in the shimmering surfaces of his material. And he can count on the safe complicity of the cinema audience with every new intrigue and every new act of manipulation by his main character Parker. Because we viewers also want the Elvis we know: the Elvis of the stage, of seduction, of sexiness, the ‘white black man’.
Baz Luhrmann is an enlightener in the postmodern sense: one who deconstructs, one who uncovers the skeleton of the grand narrative that is Elvis Presley, and who exposes the star as the construct of a star industry, emotion as the lubricant of business, and morality as the mask of power flaunts.
Here, too, Elvis is what he was above all in real life: primarily a character for the stage and for a long time the willless object of all kinds of desires: his fans, his lovers, his mother and above all his managers. Because the fairground expert Parker senses the sensation immediately when he sees Elvis. He feels: The effect of this singer, his singing and the stage show go beyond the everyday. Parker catapults Elvis onto the career path – but soon the creature defies the strict manager.
At the same time, of course, he is still the titular character, even if he fills the film’s lengths as object and supporting actor, crucial to the effect – and the relatively unknown Austin Butler gives an admirable performance as Presley, capturing his mannerisms perfectly captures and at the same time, more importantly, instills humanity and vulnerability in the musician, making his fragility ever more apparent as the story progresses.
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The result is a portrait of a musical superhero, but also a keen analysis of the star industry, the intertwining of exploitation and promise, seduction and merit. The Australian’s extravagant baroque style – split screens, slow motion, lightning storms from fast montages, symbolic mixing of objects, for example the Colonel’s cane and the “bandit’s arm” of a slot machine – suits this perfectly. Baz Luhrmann, who has always loved grand gestures and aplomb, has found in Elvis Presley a subject that is very appropriate to his melodramatic style and his operatic film language. He throws the emotions of the characters and the colors of the costumes al fresco and equally onto the screen with force – an abstract expressionist of cinema whose films are always glittering, fake diamond-studded rock ‘n’ roll.
At all times it is made clear to the viewer that no realism was sought here; Luhrmann’s cinema is a materialistic cinema of effects and objects, a cinema that never seeks to hide its means, but instead displays them openly – but not as an intellectual alienation effect either – but with the pride of the nouveau riche who can afford a Rolls Royce and that of course also does: ‘Look what I can do and what I just dare to do.’
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This is entirely appropriate for Elvis Presley and the aforementioned Cultural Revolution, which meant his style even more than his music.
Luhrmann visualizes this effect in furious montages: he jumps from the stage to the women in the audience, from the singing to the groans, from the musical movement to the sexual one.
It is a cinema of shock and dynamic exaggeration – this is no coincidence, but a calculated virtue of the Australian – once again with Elvis a great, highly entertaining cinema film has succeeded.