‘Elvis’ is the king as he deserves to be seen

Elvis Presley is the rare artist whose life and work can make the standard musical biographical formula feel vibrant, or at least not unnecessary, because Elvis was barely a musician. This is clearly not true, in the literal sense: his life was built entirely around singing for hysterical teenagers in the 50s, then dwindling crowds of moviegoers in the 60s, then nostalgic loyalists in the 70s. But in the career of a rock star, music is no less important. He was a visual artist more than he was ever an audio artist. Although there are transcendent musical moments in the mountain of bullshit he released – the false ending of “Suspicious Minds”, the desperation of the word “lonely” in “Heartbreak Hotel”, the earnestness of his vocals on ” If I Can Dream” —Elvis was an artist who needed to be seen. He was a great singer who made some interesting stylistic experiments, but if it hadn’t been for the aspects of his performance that couldn’t be conveyed on vinyl alone—his hips, his butch androgyny, and especially his whiteness— his career would be ‘It was worth making a movie 45 years after it ended. Without the iconography, it’s a chapter from a book on Sun Records. With that, he’s a headliner even in death.

ElvisBaz Luhrmann’s first film to hit theaters since Gatsby the magnificent nearly a decade ago, got to its fair share of ridiculousness. It appears to be on the way to modest commercial success, and overall it has garnered respectable critical acclaim. But it also seems destined to be a meme movie, or a “it’s so fun because it’s bad” movie, with its perception shaped by out-of-context imagery like Austin Butler’s. looking sweaty and sick like 1977 Elvis and David Ehrlich’s scorched earth magazine released from Cannes for Indiewire:

“It doesn’t matter if you do 10 stupid things as long as you do a smart one,” Col. Tom Parker advises us at the start of Baz Luhrmann’s thoroughly deranged musical biopic about the King of Rock & Roll, but even a forgiving ratio would still leave to “Elvis” about 370 “smart”. If only this 159-minute horror — a sadistically monotonous super-edit in which a weird Fleming manipulates a naïve young greaser over and over until they both become sad and die — was graceful enough to be as short in all other respects.

I don’t feel comfortable saying that Elvis is a good movie. Every ridiculous thing you’ve heard about is true, and it’s a hard thing to appreciate unless you want to turn off your brain and stop thinking about it under traditional movie rubrics. It covers way too much ground even for its bloated runtime, struggling to get the audience’s feet planted with a scene that lasts over 20 seconds. It fails to describe a single character trait of its central narrator, Colonel Tom Parker, other than “he’s greedy”, and in Tom Hanks’ performance there is a desperate effort that is completely antithetical to the forces of the actor. And after doing an admirable job of describing the musical background and influence of 1950s Memphis, it completely loses track of Elvis’ place in American culture in his later years or today. Despite all that, I’m very happy Elvis exists, because it gives Elvis a visual medium worthy of his presence, something that never really existed even when he was alive.

Looking at the real Elvis, with the means we have today, is an exercise in unmet expectations. The mythical stories of this man’s power over hordes of screaming fans continue to this day, but the tools to document and preserve that power were woefully inadequate. On black-and-white TVs, with their cramped aspect ratio and single-camera setup, Elvis is charming but also a bit awkward and clumsy, seeming more dominated by the screaming girls than they are by him. His films almost uniformly make him seem corny and unremarkable — a cute face stuck in increasingly cheap exotic locations and forced to sing forgettable numbers over and over. When he returned to live gigs, his performances became a kind of seance—attempts to summon the ghost of old Elvis that became less and less effective as his health deteriorated. Even his 1968 “Comeback Special,” hailed by many as the finest moment of Elvis’ career, can’t escape a sort of stilted stillness that seemed to occur whenever a camera had to drag the performer away from his audience. You never, ever feel like “you’re there”, let alone under the spell of Elvis.

Lester Bangs, upon Elvis’ death in 1977, wrote of Elvis’ live experience: “He was the only male entertainer I had ever seen whom I responded to sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, more of a heart erection, when i watched it i went mad with desire and envy and adoration and self-projection. I mean, Mick Jagger, who I saw as early as 1964 and twice in 1965, never even came close.

Looking at Elvis through a screen, have you ever felt that? I can’t say I have. When I look at it, I see something closer to an idiosyncratic relic whose power has been worn and wrung out by countless parodies and imitations. I feel a general appreciation for her beauty, her talent and her place in the tradition of popular music, but I end up studying her like an artifact in a museum. He is the story. I know, academically, that millions of people saw him as something more, as a sex god who commanded a room like no other and caused piercing, screaming noises from everyone who laid eyes on him, all with the smallest of tics. But it requires some sort of impossible time travel to dismiss all of the era’s distracting trappings and fall under its central magnetism.

Austin Butler, fortunately, is the closest thing to a time traveler. Given the absurd task of playing one of the most recognized and charismatic men of all time, former budget Zac Efron explodes in a burst of surprisingly powerful sexuality tinged with Oedipal sensibility. In the dramatic sections, Butler is sometimes swallowed up by the overwhelming dual presence of Hanks’ excessive quirkiness and his director’s maximalist visual style, which sometimes made me wish for extra screens to my left and right just to get away from it all. adapt to everything. He barely has time to sketch out his character’s desires and anxieties at any point in his life before the script launches him into the next milestone in Elvis’ career. But: Holy shit. In each of the film’s few performance scenes, Butler is a telling flash, breaking the disconnect that frustrates any attempt to absorb Elvis in 2022 and leaving a timeless, awe-inspiring rock star energy in its place. The exciting screams that accompany it seem deserved and inevitable.

This is a chopped and shortened version of the actual scene, for the record.

With crystal-clear cameras, full, saturated colors, beefed-up sound, a huge screen, an endless and relentless arsenal of cuts and close-ups, and all the other tricks in Baz Luhrmann’s playbook, Elvis shows his subject as he has always demanded to be seen. Say what you will about Luhrmann’s overworked approach, but he’s the only man to date whose cameras have truly been able to keep up with the chaotic tornado that was Elvis legend in its heyday. The film is an unreal and fantastic representation of an unreal and fantastic man. And while that scene of the singer getting arrested after nearly causing a riot with his suggestive contortions is pretty much a complete fabrication, it does cause Bangs “desire and envy and adoration and self-projection.” more effectively than any true anecdote and actual clip has or could. The camera, an extension of our own eyes, worships Elvis’ body through every conceivable angle, movement and filter.

I really haven’t stopped thinking about this version of Elvis since I saw the movie. Looking back at these clips, aside from the anonymous escapism of the theater, there’s a sort of awkward embarrassment at how easily the artifice can be separated. But that’s why it works like a movie. As Elvis interpreted it in the 1950s, it takes you out of your self-awareness and into a state of mind that you are both mildly ashamed of and completely enthralled with, disorienting you with a perfection that just dances out of reach and you leaving at his mercy, with the only way to quell your hungover craving to feel that feeling again available through consumerism. I once bought a pink button-up shirt like the one Butler wears in the movie. Film is a carnal act as old as money, much like the selling and merchandising of Elvis himself, but at the center of it, in both cases, is a star who makes you believe in the magic for a few minutes at a time.

For no other artist does this kind of cinematic door-opening compare, because for almost every other musician with a biopic, their best and most enduring contribution is the music itself, and every other aspect of the film look like a showcase intended to repackage and resell the original product. You’ll get much closer to understanding Queen’s talent and impact by listening pure heart attack and A night at the opera that you will only be sitting through the bottom frame at the surface of Bohemian Rhapsody. You will have a much more intimate experience with the work of Brian Wilson by accessing and deciding the meaning of animal sounds and Smile for yourself than by looking Love & Mercy. The motivation and emotion behind Straight outta Comptonthe album, is much more immediately and intensely felt than that of the film.

But Elvis, the movie, is different, because Elvis the icon was different. You can’t understand Elvis until you want to be him or fuck him, or both. He was so much more than he put on tape, and Luhrmann has the mindset and the resources, finally, to capture a beautiful resuscitation of it. Even long before this film, however, much of the appeal of Elvis was that the idol replaced reality. This is the story of a legend, not of a man.

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