Luhrmann: Elvis (2022)
Baz Luhrmann’s films revel in musical anachronism, and Elvis Presley was himself the ultimate musical anachronism, so there’s a perfect synergy between artist and subject in Elvis, Luhrmann’s tribute to the King. Not exactly a biopic, a musical or a period piece, it’s a musical phantasmagoria that distils Luhrmann’s style so succinctly that it’s almost as much of a revelation as Romeo + Juliet, which it recalls from the opening scenes. In broad strokes, we follow Elvis, played by Austin Butler in a screen-shattering performance, as he negotiates his relationship with the notorious Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks in his first genuinely evil role on the big screen. No doubt, Parker is the villain here, but he also has an acute sense of Elvis’ particular star appeal, creating and destroying him at the same time, and defying any clear opposition between the two as they collaborate on the star image that soon takes over.
From the outset, there’s a kaleidoscope of images and interfaces between us and Elvis, who in this version is already a double of himself, given that his twin brother died at birth. Parker hears Elvis before he sees him, on the radio, while our own first glimpse of Elvis is quickly deflected into a comic-strip animation sequence that presents him as a superhero coming of age. Apart from that, all we see of Elvis before he’s become Elvis is his signature wiggle at an early concert, and with that wiggle, forged in the cauldron of the Blues revival, Elvis is born. So quickly does this happen that Elvis’ legacy is already eclipsing him at the very inception of his career, leading his mother Gladys, played by Helen Thomson, to inchoately intuit “something bigger than us, something that could come between us.” From day one, he’s overwhelmed by his own image, as swarms of fans reflect it back at him, and there’s never a moment in the film when he has a stable hold on this image. In fact, Elvis, in Luhrmann’s version, consists precisely in his visceral attempts to grasp an image that forever exceeds him.
All of that is to say that Elvis is not about a gradual rise to fame, but instead presents instant fame as a period effect, the start of a new era of celebrity culture. Elvis’ star climbs so quickly here that he’s perpetually displaced by his own escalating remediations, leaving him no time to settle into one persona. We get Elvis the rebel, Elvis the soldier, Elvis the crooner, Elvis the film star and Elvis the family friendly entertainer, much as his songs are chopped and screwed into so many covers, remixes and echoes, producing a magisterial soundscape that is equal in ambition to the Beatles’ Love album. It’s as if even Luhrman’s insatiable taste for musical heterogeneity, for the frictions and abrasions between disparate sonic cues, were entirely contained by Elvis’ sphere of influence, or by the antennae Elvis send out to his musical mileu.
This vast interpenetration between Elvis, Luhrmann and the 1950s operates in a similar way to the Shakespearean diction in Romeo + Juliet, producing a profound flow that seamlessly intercuts dialogue and song lyrics, imbuing language with a musical verbality. Elvis’ oeuvre, like Shakespeare’s, is a completely overdetermined text, so to make both feel fresh again, Luhrmann leans deep into this flow, while drawing on the heightened flow of hip-hop in both cases as well. These modern beats come in at key moments – when Elvis leaves home, when he’s torn between “old” and “new” Elvis, when he’s trying to contend with the impossible demands of his mother, but more generally when he feels the pressure of his pivot point between the musical past and future. At these junctures, Elvis vaguely glimpses himself as a middle term between blues and hip-hop, much as the film itself builds to great foci of sound only to slide vertiginously and promiscuously back across different eras of African American music. At one point, this noise coalesces into crunching static, gives way to the catharsis of hip-hop and falls back upon Little Richard, played by model Alton Mason, giving a hyperactive rendition of “Tutti Frutti.” So pervasive is this hip-hop flow that it peppers the dialogue, almost unconsciously, like a bizarre missive from the musical future: “I’m sorry, Miss Jackson.”
This musical landscape also allows Luhrmann to depict Elvis’ relation to black music with real dexterity. For this Elvis is not quite an original, and not quite an appropriator, but a white artist who has the courage to embody and traverse the thresholds of segregation. In one of the most remarkable early scenes, we move from Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing a number, to a segregation line being established at an Elvis concert, to a segregation rally taking place nearby. No doubt, Elvis appropriates Tharpe, but he does it at the precise moment he presents his wiggle (banned from the show) as an instrument of desegregation, using it to encourage the black crowd to spill into the white crowd, until the same cops who set up the concert take him away for violating segregation laws. At this early point in the film, it’s the longest we’ve heard him sing as an individual, distinct from the chopped-and-screwed soundscape, in what is his most overt appropriation, but also his most defiant desegregation.
Of course, the film is not just about Elvis’ relationship with the black community, but with his manager Colonel Tom Parker, who he chose to represent him instead of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. Whereas Phillips only sees Elvis’ potential as a musician, Parker sees his potential as an image, and immediately launches a merchandise chain (“your face on every conceivable object”) that stretches all the way to “I Hate Elvis” badges (“after all, what is hate worth if it’s free?”). Over time, Elvis’ wiggle becomes the precarious pivot of this image economy – an affront to his more staid fans, to be sure, but also the motor engine of his most rabid support base. Accordingly, the camera, like Parker, tries to emulate, embody and mass produce this trademark wiggle, aligning itself so precisely with Elvis’ body that at times it’s easy to forget that he’s not playing an actual instrument, so acutely does he treat his body as an instrument.
The sheer density of this image management often brings Elvis very close to the visual style of Orson Welles, and the preoccupations of Citizen Kane in particular. In a nod to The Lady From Shanghai, Parker recognises Elvis’ media potential in a mirror maze, and first proffers his services as manager by offering to lead him out. Yet Kane is the main point of reference here, as Luhrmann effectively presents Elvis as his Kane, the epicentre of the phantasmatic twentieth century that haunts so much of his work. Like Gatsby, Luhrmann’s last phantasm, this Elvis-Kane is both remote and distant, immediate and hypermediated, to adopt the theory of remediation established by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin. All of which is to say that Elvis, like Kane, is a figure for remediations that go beyond even his wildest dreams or conscious intentions, as Elvis himself recognises when he goes to formally renounce Phillips’ management, in a sequence that directly quotes the iconic pans into windows in Citizen Kane.
Yet while Luhrmann focuses on Elvis’ relation to Parker, Hanks’ performance has been the most divisive part of the film. In part, that’s because Hanks plays it very broad and cartoonish, possibly because he’s not accustomed to playing an evil character. Parker here is a caricature rather than a character – or, to put it another way, he’s a confected image, which makes him the perfect foil for contemplating his own image management of Elvis. At one point, he tells Elvis that “I am you, and you are me”; at another point, he claims not to have an identity or history; and when he is finally prosecuted, he makes a bid for immunity on the basis that he is a citizen of no country. As an embodiment of the vampiric image industry, Parker is everywhere and nowhere, charismatically flat and hollow, like a well-drawn animated figure.
It is precisely these qualities, however, that allow Parker to extend Elvis into what the film presents as his ideal medium: television. Most of the third act, which is ushered in by a dissolve from the Hollywood sign to the word “television,” sees Elvis turn to television as the apotheosis of his star image. He starts with the 1968 television special, and proceeds to a Vegas residency that stands in for his desire to travel the world, since Parker instead brings the world to him, via the first ever satellite concert. Only on television can Elvis be all things to all people, and only through television can Elvis satiate his remarkable powers of remediation. In effect, Parker constructs a new postmodern spectacle infrastructure around Elvis, which takes visible form as the start of the Vegas strip as we now know it today. As in Diamonds Are Forever, which was released around the same time as Elvis’ residency, this postmodern Vegas is still condensed into small pockets, all of which, in Luhrmann’s version, coalesce around the Hilton, the site of Elvis’ residency, the tallest building for miles around.
No doubt, Parker’s goals are selfish, his methods are manipulative and his management is morally bankrupt. Accordingly, by the time Elvis attempts to escape this postmodern image machine, it’s too late. Even when he ensconces himself in his Hilton penthouse suite, and shuts all the windows, one by one, to drown out the burgeoning strip, the darkness just makes better viewing conditions for the bank of three televisions that inevitably draws him in. No doubt, too, Hanks’ performance is so caricatured that it often seems at odds with Butler’s method acting (apparently he spent months perfecting Elvis’ distinct twang and drawl). Yet the two gradually meld into an uneasy synergy over this last act, as they realise that mass media is both inane and sublime at once, or thrives on inane-sublime feedback loops. By taking on the burden of inanity, Parker (and Hanks) free up Elvis to generate that sublimity, much as the sheer kitschiness of Parker’s merchandise actually creates a wider fanbase for Elvis to infuse with sublime wonder. Parker may advocate for the Snowman’s League of America while Elvis realises that “when there are things too dangerous to say – sing,” but they are two sides of the same coin in Luhrmann’s theory (and enactment) of mass culture here.
In that sense, Elvis plays like a natural extension of both The Great Gatsby and Luhrmann’s series The Get Down, extending Baz’s musical heterogeneity to collapse the threshold between cinema and television, which jostle for attention as uneasily and dissonantly as Elvis and Parker themselves, a double helix of influences that coalesces around Elvis’ death. On the one hand, Luhrmann tacitly and tactfully deflects the ignominy of dying onto the toilet into a final sequence that depicts Elvis’ plane lifting off, charging the audience to associate the King with higher things. Yet this subsumed scatological ending is also there, all the time, in Parker’s infantile presence, and his need to infantilise Elvis (and, by extension, his fanbase) in turn). And that is how the film leaves us – exposed to the sublime and the scabrous, caught between high and low media in the same tasteful-tasteless interstitial space as Romeo + Juliet.
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