Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 24, 2022 8:03 am 
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Glitz, glory, and confusion in Luhrmann's uneven new movie with a hot new star

Austin Butler - pretty much out of nowhere - brings great freshness and exuberance to the role of Elvis in Baz Luhrmann's new musical biopic. He is this movie's saving grace. You can feel his excitement and the fun he's having. His eyes and his skin sparkle. He looks as fabulous in an Army uniform as in flowing, satiny trousers. In the early performances he's doing his own singing, and above all, his own wild jiving and those sexy hip and leg moves that drove the women wild and got Elvis into so much trouble when he started to become rapidly famous. He does the look. He does the speaking voice spot-on. This performance is excellent and will make Austin Butler into a star.

The director's machine-gun editing of Butler's performance moments is equally dazzling. It's crazy, silly, but fun because it's so over-the-top. The movie's first fifteen minutes are a breathtaking, giddy riff. For a while the way Luhrmann edits his movies like one long trailer for themselves almost works.

The trouble comes soon as the long haul begins with weak writing and Tom Hanks' weird performance as the no. 2 character in the film, Presley's longtime manager. The narrative falters and does not flow. What is this guy supposed to be? That voice. That wobbly accent. He looks surprisingly much like Vladimir Nabokov, the great Russian-American writer. I found myself invaded by an intrusive mnemonic irrelevance, imagining the author of Lolita had wandered away from one of his butterfly-chasing expeditions in the boonies and inexplicably slipped into the role of a cajoling circus huckster who got to manage a poor white boy from Memphis who suddenly became the most famous pop singer of all time, the kid who made rhythm and blues legit, black soul rhythms okay for white hips to wiggle to, and rock 'n roll the dominant musical sound of the western world .

Tom Hanks doesn't do accents. He can do dumb - Forrest Gump - and strange - this guy. We have to wait three quarters of the movie to find out Colonel Tom Parker was a nobody from nowhere, probably Dutch, who held no citizenship, had received permission to enter the country, bore no fixed identity. That's a pretty heavy concept to take in, and in this breathless, noisy flick that never stops we get no time to do so. The movie plays with this manipulative master-puppet relationship, the super-talented, hugely-popular genius performer and the crooked exploiter who pulls the strings, profits, and blows millions in Vegas in the star's declining years seemingly held prisoner to the stage of the gambling center's International Hotel. Hanks shows in interviews he thinks he has humanized Parker and shown his complexity. Where he got that idea is a mystery. His Colonel Parker remains shadowy, cajoling, inexplicable, a heavily prosthetic blob with a voice that could use subtitles and still would make no sense.

Butler and Hanks remain at the center of things, but the casting was great and many other subsidiary cast members are decent-to-fine. As Elvis' ever present father Vern, Richard Roxburgh is decent, but not given three dimensions. Helen Thomson is touching as Gladys, the singer's long-suffering mother whose death signaled his decline. Olivia DeJonge is excellent as Pricilla Presley. Musical impersonators have brief, splendid moments: Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King, Alton Mason as Little Richard, Shonka Dukureh as Bib Mama Thornton, Gary Clark Jr. as Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup - many more. The depth here is fantastic and the sense of the boy Elvis, when his family had been forced by poverty to live in a black neighborhood, being swept away by gospel, is galvanic and exciting in those wonderful first fifteen minutes. This could be the movie's value for younger viewers, a sense of this country's depth of black musical heritage and the white debt to it.

Elvis, 159 mins., debuted in premiere at Cannes May 25, 2022, opening in many countries in June and later. It opens in US theaters June 24. Metacritic rating: 63%.

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