MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Elvis - In Theaters
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Tom Hanks, Austin Butler
Without a doubt, Elvis Presley was an extremely popular singer and performer. For years he was the number one recording artist of all time (He is now number two, after The Beatles). A greatest hits album from 1959 was titled 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
Writer-director Baz Luhrmann was up to the challenge. His biopic Elvis is very wrong in many ways.
But let me begin with my positive assessment of Austin Butler’s performance as Elvis Presley. He truly personifies the King’s changing style through decades of music, including his early recordings and his Las Vegas comeback in the 1970’s. (I would note that there are dozens of professional Presley imitators who are every bit as good.) Butler is also able to communicate the soul of Presley in his dramatic scenes, but the script doesn’t give him much to work with. With a running time of over 2½ hours, the film must cover a 23-year career that included records, concerts, films and TV specials.
Luhrmann was initially motivated to make this movie in order to tell the story of Elvis and his symbiotic relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. In spite of his Southern-sounding name, Col. Parker was an immigrant to the United States from the Netherlands (His original name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk). He began his career as a carnival worker, eventually managing country artists in the 1940s and 50s. Parker will discover Elvis, help to make him a star, and find ways to cheat him out of millions of dollars. This could have been a good story, but even Tom Hanks doesn’t have much to work with; he is buried under heavy prosthetic makeup and saddled with a strange accent that doesn’t match up with existing recordings of Parker.
Baz Luhrmann’s approach to music has always been to mash together the past with the present, primarily using song medleys and montages (i.e., 2001’s Moulin Rouge!). In Elvis, we are treated to long sequences that include moving cameras, fast editing, new recordings mixed in with archival recordings, current pop artists singing Presley tunes, newsreel footage, and crowd noises. It is a headache inducing cacophony.
The film has the audacity to present Presley as a civil rights advocate (even though his early records were appropriations of recordings from black artists).
The film fails to communicate the joy that Elvis shared with his family and friends. A bit of his good humor would have helped make this overbaked turkey easier to swallow.
The film concludes with the famous P.A. announcement that “Elvis has left the building”. So true.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Two halos: A noisy mess of a movie that hardly begins to explain the phenomenon known as Elvis Presley.
Two pitchforks: PG-13 swearing; drug and alcohol use; racism.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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