(For Day 15 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to write a poem praising a role model while suggesting doubt around their supposed reputation. A biopic seemed like an ideal choice for this topic, since they so often expose the seedier aspects of celebrities.)
When searching music history,
From madrigals to neo-soul,
Elvis Presley was expressly
Called the King of Rock and Roll.
That clearly means the genre must
Have started with his rise to fame.
Raucous singing, pelvic swinging –
Closely linked to Elvis’ name.
Is Elvis not the true foundation
Of the rock we now revere?
When your sound is that renowned,
He must have been the pioneer,
Or so I hear.
MPA rating: PG-13
At this point, I expect all successful musicians of yesteryear to eventually get a film exposing their struggles and faults. Honestly, I’m surprised it took this long for Elvis Presley to get the Hollywood biopic treatment (not counting incidental narratives like Elvis & Nixon), but director Baz Luhrmann certainly went all out to finally make the King’s story into a flashy blockbuster. Framed as a deathbed recollection of Elvis’ infamously controlling manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the story recounts Elvis’ life from his early fascination with African-American gospel music to his 1968 Christmas special comeback to his restrictive Las Vegas residency.
As I think most people acknowledge, the real star here is Austin Butler, who plays Elvis to perfection with an effortless drawl and swagger yet still makes him feel like a real person in a way old performance footage often doesn’t. It’s one of those rare ideal matches between star and subject that every biopic dreams of finding. And while Tom Hanks has gotten plenty of flak for his fake Dutch(?) accent, even winning two Razzies for the role, I thought he did a fine job, striking a convincing balance between fondness for “his boy” and the greed and anxiety of not wanting to lose control of his cash cow.
What felt more divisive than Hanks’s performance is Luhrmann’s direction, pumping as much visual glitz and bustle into each second as possible. The camera swoops and swirls with fever-dream abandon and rarely rests on any one scene for very long, further punctuated by anachronistic music, I suppose chosen to show Elvis’ continuing impact on modern music, even though rap tends to clash with 1950s Memphis. Yet as the film progressed, the drama and conflict between Elvis and Parker become more pronounced, and the direction likewise settles into a more serious mode that supports the emotional moments toward the end. I’m discovering that this is apparently a Luhrmann trend, since I recall Strictly Ballroom having a similar tonal switch from a first half I hated to a second half I loved. I suppose a strong ending is preferable to the alternative, but his style does take some getting used to.
That being said, Elvis does right by its iconic namesake, highlighting his stage presence and vocal power so closely replicated by Butler, who absolutely deserved his Best Actor nomination (though I am happy for Brendan Fraser’s win). His stunning rendition of “If I Can Dream” and the closing integration of “Unchained Melody” with real footage are especially brilliant. While it’s overlong and sidesteps some of his failings, like marital infidelity, the film shines a light on many details I never knew about the King of Rock and Roll and will likely become the de facto cinematic version of his story.
Best line: (Elvis) “A reverend once told me, ‘When things are too dangerous to say, sing.’”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2023 S.G. Liput
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