July 4, 2022 (San Diego) – I’ve apparently read all of the reviews for the new Elvis movie and some reviews seem locked into the traditional biopic formula and standards. Here is the bottom line: Forget all the negative reviews and forget about all the other biopics you’ve seen. Elvis is different and is likely to influence future movie biographies.
“Elvis”, who dethroned the mega-hit Top Gun: Maverick in its opening weekend, is not La Bamba, it is not the bios of Johnny Cash or Freedie Mercury. Most film biographies of singers and musicians continue to have a structure still influenced by biofilms of 20th century films such as James Cagney as George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or The Jolson Story . These two films apparently spawned a series of great biopics and forgetful, mundane, or downright awful biopics.
No, I didn’t find director Baz Luhrmann’s quick edit boring. I also wasn’t obsessed with “Hey, there’s Tom Hanks playing Colonel Tom Parker with lots of makeup!” Hanks’ makeup wasn’t off-putting if you followed the story and the performance rather than studying the prosthetics used to transform him into a truly grotesque Parker. Hanks got teased over his makeup but he and Luhrmann deserve it all bit criticism and more for making Hanks speak with an accent when the real Parker didn’t. Whatever the justification: it was a far-fetched decision.
And then there’s Austin Butler as Elvis. He resisted the temptation to do an (easy) impersonation of Elvis and tried to recreate Elvis as a person as much as humanly possible.
In a performance that demands an Oscar nomination and a win, Butler becomes Elvis (or so says Priscilla Presley and others who knew Eivis). Butler spent two years studying every inflection, body movement, speech pattern, vocal pattern and style of Elvis and it paid off. The 30-year-old actor sings for early Elvis songs (his showcase song is Trouble), and is mixed with Elvis in later songs. All Hollywood bio pics take liberties with the facts (the fake Christmas for the 1968 comeback special shown in Elvis never happened), but what Hollywood bio didn’t? (The old Jolson story totally cut Jolson from having a brother and the Elvis movie cut Presley’s girlfriends after Priscella).
Some reviewers are stuck in the old biopic formula and the standard biopic edition. No, the structure and editing of Elvis isn’t confusing or an ego trip by Luhrmann, just his style. It’s different in editing and pacing (a barrage of images, quick cuts, even at one point a comic book page), structure (the shots aren’t all in chronological order), and l ‘aspiration (Luhrmann considers it an opera in three acts and also wanted to show how music and America have changed during the decades that Presley was on the stage).
FOOTNOTE: The film recreates Elvis’ humiliation on The Steve Allen Show. It’s the actual clip of the infamous appearance of Steve Allen. Allen put on Elvis after Presley was on Milton Berle’s show and controversy was raging about Elvis’ hip which was very outrageous at that time. Steve Allen agreed to have Presley on his NBC show, which aired opposite CBS rival Ed Sullivan, for Elvis to preview his next hit “Hound Dog.” Hound Dog to a female basset hound.
Allen was typical of many in the greatest generation of Sinatra rulers and didn’t understand or like what he was doing and apparently tried to coerce him, homogenize him, and make fun of him. (On YouTube you can see Dean Martin, another great generation, introduce the Rolling Stones to the Hollywood Palace and literally roll his eyes when they’re done). In his later years, Allen insisted that he was not trying to diss Elvis; Elvis called it the most humbling moment of his career. After that appearance, Allen wanted to rebook Presley, but Sullivan stepped in, offered Presley a ton of money, and hired him to go on his show for multiple appearances without restricting his body movements (but in shooting him from the waist in many appearances). The contrast in the performances of the constrained Presley on the Allen show and on the Sullivan show was staggering.
Austin Butler sings Trouble:
Elvis with the dog on Steve Allen:
Elvis doing the song later on Ed Sullivan. Note the contrast to Steve Allen’s show:
Dean Martin introduces the Rolling Stones to the Hollywood Palace with a bit of disdain and rolls his eyes after they sing:
Interview with the real Colonel Tom Parker. Wait… where is his accent?