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Entertainment

Elvis has left the movie

Ferdinand S. Topacio - The Philippine Star
Elvis has left the movie
The film is a mixed bag. It is sympathetic at times to its subject, showing him caught in a trap made by his manager, and he can’t walk out. It also humanizes Elvis Presley, showing him as a loving child and husband, someone who is not made of wood and doesn’t have a wooden heart. It also shows him as ahead of his time in crediting African-Americans for his music, even calling B.B. King ‘the real king of rock and roll,’ although some may argue that Elvis made one of the first cases of cultural appropriation.
STAR / File

Film review: Elvis

Baz Luhrman’s frenetic, hyperactive directorial style made Moulin Rouge (2001) one of the most visually innovative movies of the first decade of the 2000s. Fast forward to 2022, and that same style, practically unchanged – and albeit on steroids in Elvis – did not age well.

Told from the point of view of Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s mysterious manager, who has claimed credit for making Presley “The King,” Elvis substitutes flash for facts, shine for substance.

Told in a fairly linear manner, it tries to cover all the bases of the iconic rock n’ roller’s life: His childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi; his exposure to black music, which indelibly affected his style; his relationship with his parents; his rapid ascent to the top of the charts and his great fame worldwide; his marriage with the 14-year old Priscilla after his stint in the army; his decline and attempts at a comeback; and of course, his complex interaction with Col. Parker. All these are told in a series of smash cuts and/or montages, which may have worked well in Moulin Rouge, but is jarring to the senses in a biopic.

Austin Butler plays Presley. While he does not exactly resemble the singer, he has gotten his mannerisms, energy and charisma down pat, although not too profoundly. The redoubtable Tom Hanks plays the Colonel, in a performance that oversteps into caricature. The rest of the cast turn in fine performances, especially Olivia Dejonge who, perhaps as a foil to Austin’s fevered performance and Tom’s characterization, chooses instead to under-act coolly as Priscilla Presley.

The production design is topnotch as only a Hollywood budget can make it, with near-perfect reproductions of the styles and accoutrements of the times covered (the late 1930s to the late 1970s). Verily, the attention to detail in recreating his stage costumes is amazing. And the cinematography is painstakingly accurate, the digital effects dazzling. From a technical point of view, no fault may be found there.

It is the cinematic narrative that is a mess of blues. Notwithstanding the challenges to telling a complex tale, the story could have been told more deeply. Instead, we get Luhrman (and the others who share screenwriting credits) simply ticking the boxes of the milestones of Elvis’ life. If they were looking for trouble, they’ve come to the right place.

To be sure, the movie never bores. All that brisk storytelling makes for an engaging work, one that becomes, sadly, all shook up an hour and a half into its overlong two hour and a half running time. It was, to be honest, like a river flowing surely to the sea, but in a long, runabout manner. While only fools may rush in, in this case, the filmmaker should have rushed it a bit.

Where the film may have greatly succeeded is in bringing the legend of Elvis to an entirely new audience: Millennials and the Gen Zs, to whom Elvis is not really “The King” (but Fernando Poe Jr., at least to Filipinos), but a rocker whose music is good for nostalgia, whose love songs provide some retro mood on nights when they are lonesome and their hearts filled with pain, and who is impersonated by many a performer on RJTV. For them, the movie gives an idea of what made Elvis great, what made his music edgy and mind-blowing then, and how he is a continuing influence on rock and pop until today.

The film intersperses Elvis songs with rap and newer rock forms in an obvious attempt to appeal to these new generations. This may be an astute move to garner a wider audience, but it is nothing short of blasphemous to us Gen Zers, who feel quite strongly that the musical director can do anything that he wants to do, as long as he lays off our blue suede shoes.

In fine, the film is a mixed bag. It is sympathetic at times to its subject, showing him caught in a trap made by his manager, and he can’t walk out. It also humanizes Elvis, showing him as a loving child and husband, someone who is not made of wood and doesn’t have a wooden heart. It also shows him as ahead of his time in crediting African-Americans for his music, even calling B.B. King “the real king of rock and roll”, although some may argue that Elvis made one of the first cases of cultural appropriation.

The most touching part of the film is towards the end, and that is the footage of the real Elvis in his last concert, overweight, perspiring profusely, short of breath, but playing the piano himself and still striving to give the audience his best performance as he strains to Unchained Melody. Now THAT scene will always be on our minds.

(Elvis is now streaming on HBO Max.)

ELVIS

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