Elvis – The Price You Pay for Ignoring Your Roots
BY MICHAEL YOUNG
Elvis is a superb film with exceptional production values and terrific performances from Tom Hanks (Colonel Tom Parker) and Austin Butler (Elvis Presley). What makes the movie work, though, is the nearly frenetic interplay between scenes in different time frames or locations, all stitched together by an unrelenting soundtrack. The message here is a basic one: people need the support they get from their cultural background.
Elvis is tied with Tar on my Oscar Quality Index (OQI) ranking 5th out of all 25 general interest nominees. Both films were nominated for Best Picture and the Leading actors (Austin Butler and Cate Blanchett) were both nominated. But there are important differences in the rest of the nominations. While Tar also received Directing and Writing nominations, Elvis did not, suggesting that Academy members appreciated Todd Field’s storytelling better than Baz Luhrman’s. (And, in fact, Todd Field has been nominated twice before for his screenplays, while Luhrman’s only previous nomination was as a producer (for Moulin Rouge).
Both films were nominated in the critical movie-making trades of Cinematography and Editing and, I would agree, are about equal in that regard, although I might give Elvis a lead on Editing simply because it is much more integral to the way Luhrman tells the story.
But Elvis received four nominations in what I call the “Production Values” categories – Sound, Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup & Hairstyling – while Tar didn’t score a nomination in any of those categories (although I thought it deserved one in Sound). What this tells us is both films are well-crafted works of art with outstanding performances by, at least, one actor. It also says that Elvis should be more of a sensory experience – with lots of interesting things to see and hear. (Elvis alone wears more than 90 different costumes in this film and, in total, the costume designers developed more than 9000 different outfits for cast members). I believe those conclusions are warranted. Tar tells the story through sheer dialogue and drama whereas Elvis is more of a visual and aural spectacle.
This is a controversial film with inconsistent ratings from both critics and the public. General audiences give Elvis an average rating of sixth out of our 25 general interest films while critics have generally panned the film. Anything about Elvis Presley is going to generate a lot of public interest, at least among some of the older generations, and younger generations might be just a bit curious about what all the fuss is about. I get the sense, and justifiably so, that the public was intrigued by the story and absorbed by the music, which is terrific.
Critics, on the other hand, are, once again, expecting too much. Many of them layered on the same criticism of Tom Hanks that they did with Nicole Kidman (in Being the Ricardos) – that the prosthetics and makeup stiffened the performance into something unrecognizable. As I said in my review of Kidman’s movie, it is probably impossible for a big-name actor to play someone with a known identity because too many preconceptions have been built up, and the performance is unlikely to satisfy them all.
I’ve also read criticism of the movie that it just doesn’t do justice to Presley himself and that it doesn’t accurately portray The King! I find that criticism especially telling since you have to be at least my age to have any real memories of the man (he died in 1977) and even I do not have a real clear perspective on him or know how he looked and behaved. Very few of us alive now have anything other than media-filtered imagery. So, like the criticism of Nicole Kidman’s Lucy, we are comparing the filmmaker’s vision of the man to an already-manipulated image we have learned as our ‘standard’.
All of which is to say that I don’t think we should look at any non-documentary film through the lens of ‘truth’. It is, and always must be, only an interpretation because that is all we have now. So, I prefer to evaluate the film not by how “accurately” it portrays Elvis, but rather by how effective the character and the story are in stimulating emotions.
It is difficult for me to know exactly which elements of Luhrmann’s film are fact and which are “enhanced” for dramatic effect. But, as I mentioned above, I’m not sure that matters in a movie not advertised as a documentary. The purpose of a biopic is to portray a set of relevant feelings or impressions. Luhrmann accomplishes that here, whether you are talking about the subject, Elvis Presley, or his antagonist, Colonel Tom Parker.
This is only Luhrmann’s sixth feature film, but it retains important elements from at least one of his earlier movies, Moulin Rouge. Both films showcase Luhrmann’s attention to sets, costumes, and makeup as well as sound design, cinematography, and, especially, editing.
All of these elements are combined in the first 20 minutes of the movie, which set the stage for how this movie works. It is a kinetic display of visual back and forth tied together with a wonderful soundtrack. In this time, we flash back to Elvis’s childhood where, because his father was serving a prison sentence, the family had moved to a house they could afford in a largely black neighborhood. Elvis’s identity was formed in a crucible of Black blues (in a back-alley dance hall) and, across the field, a big-tent Black Christian revival meeting, complete with gospel music. Not only does Luhrmann reference the two foundations of rock and roll music, but he also mesmerizes us with his frenetic style. (If you don’t like this setup, you are likely not going to enjoy the rest of this two-hour and forty-minute story.)
But Luhrmann isn’t done with our history lesson. At the forty-three-minute mark, Elvis has a fight with his mother and, to resolve his emotions, he drives off in his big 50’s car and heads to Beale Street. After Parker “discovered” Elvis and scored a remarkable recording contract, the Presley family was able to acquire Graceland and they moved to the Memphis, Tennessee area. Beale Street was the center of the Black community in the greater Memphis area. In this sequence, Elvis is completely comfortable with the likes of BB King, Little Richard, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When in emotional trouble, Elvis retreats to his black-community roots. Luhrmann embeds the main storyline with flowing music and flashbacks to his past.
Around the sixty-nine-minute mark, Elvis has already been in several movies, and the films, and his image, are beginning to tank. But, while on the set for one of them, Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated (1968) in Presley’s hometown of Memphis. At this point, Presley had not really been allowed to go back to his black roots. He lived in a white world now. But in watching Mahalia Jackson sing at MLK’s funeral, Elvis began to realize what he was missing and how important it was for him to get back to “the music that made him happy.” That realization has important consequences for the rest of the movie.
One of the many important messages from Elvis is the importance of maintaining and recognizing different cultures. Yes, Rock and Roll, in the seventies and beyond, became a white and especially British enterprise, but it retained its roots in Black blues and gospel. (Fleetwood Mac, my favorite band of all-time, was originally British and started as a blues band. How that happened is a mystery to me, but they didn’t invent the blues. They co-opted it, and, like Elvis, modified it into the rock music that we all know.) Elvis, in addition to being an exploration of two important cultural personalities, is also a testament to the need to promote cultural differences while we break down our resistance to experience them. True creativity emerges from the combination of what seem to be unrelated experiences. Luhrmann not only serves us that message in his story, but he also delivers it in his movie style.