The recent Saturday Night Live hosted by Austin Butler persuaded me to watch the recent biography of Elvis Presley, starring Butler.
As we watched, Erika pointed to the similarity between Butler and Elvis, two men who both lost their mother relatively early in life, suggesting that might help his portrayal. Watching Butler speak of his mother during the monologue was the first of three times that I cried (tears but no sobs) during this episode of SNL.
Butler himself teared up while he spoke. I suppose it’s contagious.
The second and third moments with teardrops were really about Cecily Strong, my favorite SNL cast member, whose departure from the show was announced with this episode. She came at it in her usual use of bizarre metaphors. In the Weekend Update segment she spoke in character of going to jail, as a metaphor for leaving SNL. More tears but no sobs.
Later, speaking of her plan to leave her job at Radio Shack (again, a metaphor for leaving SNL), host Austin Butler came out to sing “Blue Christmas”.
Seeing this we decided we would watch the Elvis film, speaking as someone who has done a few Elvis impersonations of my own during singing telegrams. No I’m not as good at this as Butler. In the film he looks and sounds like Elvis. Amazing.
When I speak of “Elvis’s redemption” I mean a new perspective on someone I used as a kind of cartoon character, someone I understood as a dinosaur, a relic of the 1950s mocked throughout popular culture.
For instance who can forget the “Song of The King” from Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?
That’s one of the more dignified versions of Elvis.
Elvis Presley turns up in Forrest Gump, getting ideas from watching Forrest walk with his leg-braces.
Elvis’s voice & clothing were easy to recognize and usually gave people a giggle when I mimicked him. I never challenged the assertions of his importance as one of the innovators in music history, a bridge between white and black culture: although I understood him more as a Pat Boone type, a white guy appropriating black music, rather than someone authentic in his own right. His eventual fate as a target for so many comic imitations suggested that he was also committing self-parody, which I realize is simply unfair. Of course now I’m coming at this after reading Gabor Maté, who links addictions to trauma and without blame.
I think we’re ready for a new take on Elvis.
Because it’s directed by Baz Luhrmann, a director known to be sometimes over the top, one must come at the film with some skepticism. As with the eccentric Ken Russell or the flamboyant Terry Gilliam, I embrace the poetic excess of Baz’s films whole-heartedly. I first encountered this sensibility in Strictly Ballroom (1992), loved the opportunities Moulin Rouge (2001) affords for examining music in film, and was totally won over by his approach to The Great Gatsby (2013), especially when compared to the pallor of the 1974 adaptation.
There were many places where I knew Baz was taking liberties with the truth. No the film has not fully erased my earlier impressions, nor will it really change our understanding of the cultural icon. But I come out of this thinking that Elvis has at times been misunderstood, as he’s more of a victim. In the 1960s and 70s our culture saw fatness as weakness, recalling John Belushi’s imitation of Liz Taylor for example. Drug addiction too was judged in moral terms.
Butler’s superb performance is the starting point, although in the latter part of the film we segue into films of the actual Elvis, as though to authorize what we’ve seen. Frankly I don’t think it matters. This is an enjoyable movie that makes me like Elvis more than I’ve ever liked him before. I’ll have to watch again. At the very least I found I liked Butler’s Elvis, Baz’s Elvis, if not the actual Elvis, whom I’ll never really know.
Tom Hanks is at the centre of this project in his portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker, the man who managed Elvis for most of his career. For the first part of the film we’re seeing the story through the lens of the Colonel. Hanks plays completely against type, in an Oscar-worthy performance although perhaps Butler will be one of his rivals for the statuette. While this is again a symptom of Baz the entertainer or Baz the poet, the facts underlining this are genuine. Elvis was ripped off by his manager, of this there is no doubt.
Baz’s divergence from reality in this aspect of the story is one that I quite like. I won’t spoil the film by telling you, except to say that it reminds me of the scene in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) when the Nazis are slaughtered, a scene I ascribe to poetic justice, the way we might wish the story had ended. If you apply similar justice to Elvis perhaps he would have avoided his eventual lonely fate, but at the very least Baz’s Elvis does acquire some lucidity and freedom, even some dignity. Alas the truth is even sadder.
It’s a fascinating film, wonderful looking and tremendous sounding, worth a look and a listen. I’ll see it again.