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Friday, December 2, 2022

Director Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ a chaotic look at life of musical trailblazer

Director Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” rocks and roars like a speeding, out-of-control mystery train.
The first half of this movie is a dizzying, visually-explosive psycho mash-up of Elvis Presley’s early career. It settles down into more traditional story-telling in the second half, but never quite matches the power and magnitude of its subject.
 “Elvis” details Presley’s rise from a dirt-poor family on the Black side of town, to a greasy-haired rebel infused with the Holy Ghost spirit of gospel music and the African-American soul of rhythm and blues.
That’s what rock and roll is all about and Elvis was the guy who made it matter. Elvis started a musical and cultural-revolution in the 1950s and he still matters today.

The biopic 22Elvis22 takes the audience on a chaotic ride through the life of the King.
The biopic “Elvis” takes the audience on a chaotic ride through the life of the King.

Austin Butler gives an absolutely riveting performance as Elvis. Butler’s singing, choreography and charisma bring Elvis to life and capture the essence of the man and his music. Butler, in many ways, saves this movie from itself.

At least he saves it from Tom Hanks, who is zombie-like playing Elvis’ evil puppet master, Col. Tom Parker.
Hanks’ plays Parker as a cross between Otis on “Andy of Mayberry” and The Swedish Chef on The Muppets.  He’s big, sloppy and robotic and his phony European/American accent is nearly unintelligible.  

Worse than that, Hanks plays Parker as a totally one-dimensional character—pure evil manipulation. He never really makes Parker human.

Parker follows Elvis like a vulture, throughout Presley’s career. “I  am you and you are me,” Parker says at one point.
Luhrmann, meanwhile, has trouble telling a coherent story. He jumps all over the place on a bumpy, roller-coaster ride through Elvis’ Land. In one scene, Elvis wanders through a carnival funhouse hall of mirrors, trying to find himself and it’s the perfect metaphor for Elvis’ life and this film.
Luhrmann too often can’t resist assaulting the viewer with quick scene cuts, mind-bending camera-movements, slow motion action shots and magnified close-ups. It’s straight out of a 1980s’ Motley Crue video.
The first half of the movie is exhausting but, crazy as it sounds, you can’t help watching and going with the chaotic flow.
Some of the numbers are visually irresistible:

“Baby Let’s Play House.” Elvis’ first big break on the “Louisiana Hayride” TV show. Butler tears up the stage and the legend is born.


“Trouble.” Elvis faces controversy in the segregated South for singing “negro” music and gyrating too much. He is told to only move his finger on stage. Elvis does it for a few seconds and then rips into a wild, sexually-acrobatic number.

“The ’68 Comeback Special.” Elvis gets back to his roots, wearing a leather suit and singing hard-rocking numbers. Col. Parker wants him to sing Christmas songs.  Elvis is deeply moved by the murders of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. He closes the show with one of his most emotional numbers, “If I Can Dream.”
The rest of the movie is the same old Elvis story.  We watch him go from sexy rebel, to Army soldier, to movie star, to Vegas singer. He winds up a  pill-addicted, overweight, sickly man, sweating and singing his way to an early death at 42 in 1977.
The most powerful part of the movie comes at the end in one of the real Elvis’ final concerts when he sings, “Unchained Melody.” Elvis’ voice is the only strength he has left. It’s painful to watch.
The usual Elvis characters turn up in the film, but few really make an impact or take the time to develop.

Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla, meets Elvis as a teenager and drifts in and out of his life after they marry.

Helen Thomson plays Elvis’ mother, Gladys. She is a dominating early influence and Elvis is shattered by her death while he serves in the Army. Richard Roxburgh is Elvis’ father Vernon, and he’s basically an ornament in this movie.

Race is a major part of the film and Elvis’ deep affection and influence of African-American R&B and gospel music is on full display.

Those influences include: Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King, Gary Clark Jr. as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup; Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton.

One of the highlights is Alton Mason as Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti.”

This is a movie that pays homage to the King. If you’re an Elvis fan, you’ll like this film.
But the King deserved better.

 Tony Violanti covers arts for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into the Buffalo NY Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist, the same year as Buffalo native Joe Guerico, who was Elvis’ musical director from 1970-77.

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