In ‘Elvis’, there’s no business like Baz-ness
A few days ago, I was minding my business in the Cannes press room when I heard an Australian voice breaking through the din: “Illviss is in bed. Fin Tuhm Henks is a tuhribble. I couldn’t tell if this woman had actually seen Elvis, or if she was just relaying information she had heard second-hand, but either way, it was proof that the buzz for Baz Luhrmann’s rock-and-roll blockbuster wasn’t good. The funny thing is now that my eyes have seen Elvis, I still don’t know if this random Aussie was telling the truth or not. East Elvis evil? Is Tom Hanks terrible? As much to ask: “Is philosophy purple?”
What I can tell you is that Baz Luhrmann Elvis is undoubtedly a Baz Luhrmann Elvis film. No other film at Cannes so proudly delivers exactly what it says on the box, and I’ve seen The Silent Twinswhere the twins are silent; Nostalgia, where a guy is nostalgic; and Men, a film with men. The lights had barely gone out in the Agnes Varda Theater before we were treated to a Warner Bros. logo. encrusted with rhinestones and a swirling CGI version of the Las Vegas skyline transforming into a hospital IV drip. These are perhaps the most subtle moments in the entire film.
The Baz Luhrmann version of a rock biopic goes like this: Take all the beats you remember from movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman – from the evil manager to the mouthfuls of pills to the partner who represents all that is good and pure in this world because you needed their permission to get the rights – then remix them to add the Neptunes hats and the Max Martin’s Greatest Hits. In comedy, they have a rule: Don’t put a hat on a hat. Baz Luhrmann spits on this rule. He will put a hat on a hat, then give that hat his own hat with a little pinwheel that spins on it. Why have only one timeline when you can edit another timeline inside that timeline? Why does Elvis hang out in the black clubs of Beale Street if you’re not going to blast Doja Cat on the stage? While you’re at it, why not give Elvis’ crotch its own dedicated camera angle, an Austin Butler green screen in old Elvis movies, and then do an eight-part split screen? Baz has the technology; the only limit is his imagination, which is limitless. Taste is a lie invented by snobs.
As proof, we have Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, the dastardly Dutch devil on the shoulder of the holy Elvis. It’s entirely possible that God sent the coronavirus to Earth to prevent this performance from seeing the light of day. The reason he failed is that Hanks’ game is so big that even the Lord himself couldn’t overcome it. Imagine Hermann Göring playing the Penguin, and you’ll get an idea of Hanks’ register here. Opposite him is Austin Butler, playing a version of the King that’s basically empty when he’s not on stage. Despite impossible odds, Butler not only refrains from embarrassing himself, but is actually, improbably…good? Luhrmann shoots his face like it’s the shark of Jaws, and when seen in full, he looks less like the real Elvis and more like Jonathan Rhys Meyers Elvis. But that doesn’t matter. He has the shimmy and he has the shake. If there is justice, the lords of rock will melt down Rami Malek’s Oscar to give him a golden crown.
During the film’s press conference, the cast and crew attempted to explain themselves to mere mortals. Luhrmann revealed that he was inspired by Shakespeare’s history plays, and also Amedee, both of which turned real facts into grand fables. “I wanted him to be present now,” he said. Hence hip-hop. “The lyrics to ‘Hound Dog’ were salacious, crude, unacceptable in polite society. When Doja Cat raps him, young viewers who have only known Elvis for Lilo & Stitch or as a character in a video game can understand what the music was like back then. He was the original punk rock.
The ultimate goal, as Luhrmann said in a quote that I think will become Butler’s Oscar campaign slogan, was to find “the man, not the icon.” Whether the film’s up to eleven approach really serves the late Elvis Aaron Presley depends on who you talk to. “Elvis yanks and jerks and rattles everywhere, seeking form and purpose in all directions and finding few,” vanity loungeby Richard Lawson wrote. “Complaining that Elvis is basically a compilation of biographical musical conventions, it’s kind of like complaining about a greatest hits album,” explained the THE Time’ justin changwho praised Luhrmann’s “ability to imbue the shots with sincerity, energy and sentiment”.
If you want to know in which direction the Cannes public leans, know that the premiere on Wednesday evening would have been interrupted by spectators who spontaneously rose to applaud after a few musical numbers. They couldn’t help but fall in love.