In the wake of the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, there will surely be a surplus of think pieces examining the film’s historical accuracy or lack thereof. While there’s certainly value in that sort of exercise, it kind of misses the point. Elvis concerns itself with the actual human being in the same way that I’m Not There is about Bob Dylan. It’s an exploration and a recitation of the myth of Elvis, and as that it’s compelling, energetic, and boosted by a remarkable performance from Austin Butler.
The film opens in 1997, as Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis’s notoriously controlling and greedy manager, lies in a hospital bed near death. It’s through his eyes, and with his narration, that we trace the course of Presley’s life. In nonlinear fashion, we hop from 1973 at the Hotel International (a/k/a the Las Vegas Hilton) to 1954, where kid Elvis’s (Chaydon Jay) carnival performance gets him initially noticed by Parker. Parker crafts him into a superstar, but also infamously takes an unconscionable cut of Elvis’s earnings. Even after Elvis becomes a superstar, though, the exploited can never quite quit his exploiter.
Hanks’s Parker is a thoroughly repugnant creature, conniving from the get-go and increasingly dictatorial over every aspect of his meal ticket’s life. Elvis is the blameless, gullible victim of Parker’s treachery, and it was the pressures that Parker applied that led to the star’s increasingly unhealthy lifestyle and early death. That’s an unsubtle message, but it’s delivered with the typical Luhrmann panache, leavened by just enough depth to keep you engaged.
That’s largely due to the performance of Butler, who beat out a number of better-known Hollywood actors for the role and emerges as a bone fide star. Luhrmann doesn’t shy away from iconic Elvis moments, and Butler nails every one. In its final moments, the movie cuts between Butler’s performance and footage of the real Elvis, and it’s not clear sometimes which one we’re seeing.
But this is more than mere imitation. Although Elvis doesn’t nose around in its subject’s intimate life too much (a virtue of the Colonel Parker framing device), Butler imbues both Elvis’s public appearances and private conversations with depth and sincerity, capturing the growing burden of being the biggest star in the world.
He’s not a Sisyphean meteor like Buddy Holly or Kurt Cobain. Elvis is Promethean, having delivered the fire of rock and roll to mainstream (read white) audiences, and then forced to endure lengthy, jump-suited torment while having his liver pecked away by Colonel Tom Parker. He’s the cautionary figure for those who think that it’s better to burn out than fade away. (Never mind that he only made it to 42.)
One potentially problematic aspect of the King’s legacy that the film does address is his relationship to rock’n’roll’s Black roots. Is he an appropriator or an appreciator? In this telling, he’s definitely the latter. At one point the rising star escapes for a night on the town in Memphis, including a party where B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Little Richard (Alton Mason) perform, and by the end of the night the only white guy in the room is part of the family.
There are other, more clearly problematic aspects that Luhrmann elides or ignores, most notably Elvis’s romantic relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), which the film fails to mention began when she was 14 and he was 24. (I know I said I’d ignore historical inaccuracies, but this one is the elephant in the room that proves the exception.) And while Elvis depicts the eventual collapse of their marriage, it’s safe to say that, by most accounts, he treated her considerably worse than we see here.
So, yes, this is mythology. It’s trying to capture, to the extent possible, the thrill of being an Elvis fan during the fifteen or so years when he exerted such a fascinating hold on American culture, rather than the experience of being the man himself. It’s probably futile to expect gritty historical realism from the maker of Moulin Rouge, and the results would likely be grating if he tried.
Perhaps the truest shots in the whole film are the cutaways to (female) audience members, who scream out in unexpected, orgasmic bursts that seem to surprise even themselves. Maybe that’s what Luhrmann is trying to make us feel. More than once, he gets close.
(Opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, June 24.)
ELVIS ISN’T THE ONLY ICON gracing a Portland movie theater this week. There’s also Peaches Christ, the San Francisco-based drag icon who’ll be at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday night to present a screening of the long-lost, low-budget horror spoof All About Evil, which Peaches wrote and directed under their civilian moniker, Joshua Grennell.
It’s fair to say that All About Evil would have remained an underground obscurity if not for the career renaissance of Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll, Orange Is the New Black). The film was shot in 2010, when Lyonne was, at best, not far removed from the heroin addiction and related legal troubles that nearly ended her carrer (and her life). In it, the raspy-voiced actor stars as humble librarian Deborah Tennis, who inherits a local, ramshackle horror movie theater after her grandfather dies.
One night, our meek heroine is pushed too far and snaps, committing a bloody murder with a ball-point pen as the weapon. Unbeknownst to her, security camera footage of the incident is broadcast live to an audience waiting for a film to start. And they love it.
What follows is a series of increasingly garish, gory, hilarious violent freakouts, each of which draws a larger and more enthusiastic crowd.
In addition to Lyonne, the movie features appearances by cult faves such as Mink Stole, Cassandra “Elvira” Petersen, and veteran genre character actor Jack Donner. If you’re up for the joke, it’s a hoot, and should be even more so in a packed, receptive audience. Just like in the movies.
(Screens on Friday, June 24, at the Hollywood Theatre. The screening will be preceded by a show featuring Portland’s drag all-stars, and after the film, copies of the Blu-ray release will be for sale and for autographing by Peaches Christ.)