“Elvis”, luxuriously statuesque but flattened rock star

“Elvis”, luxuriously statuesque but flattened rock star

Rare privilege, Baz Luhrmann was able to modify the logo of the multinational which produces it (Warner), and which appears set with gold and precious stones. What immediately display the tone and the spirit of the film: the excess of tinsel, the surge of kitsch.

Immediately after appears the one who is supposed to tell the story (although one can doubt that he would have told it like this), Colonel Parker, demiurge impresario of the rock star, whom Tom Hanks delights in overplaying as a visionary Raminagrobis and cynical.

Elvisthe film, raises a multi-hundred-million-dollar question: how passionate are audiences under the age of 50 about a phenomenon totally inscribed in a world that disappeared with the 1950s? -1960?

For the others, older, there is hardly any suspense: those for whom the singer of “Blue Suede Shoes” was an important figure in their youth will be able to draw at leisure from the luxurious array of souvenir trinkets offered by the film. And those who have little or no interest in it are unlikely to change their minds.

Two assets and two springs

On a classic biopic plot that is careful not to question the mechanics of this genre, Baz Luhrmann deploys the most obvious, the most assured of its assets, which are two in number. One, more technical than artistic, is due to the director; the other, the music, is about it.

The signatory of Romeo + Juliet and of Red Mill! is an undisputed expert at making pop culture clichés spectacular with flashy visual effects and a sense of tempo.

And in this case it has the considerable reinforcement of a handful of historical musical pieces, charged with a power which, even if they no longer model the successful compositions of today, retain an undeniable effectiveness.

As is so frequent, they will moreover only be mentioned as a quotation-wink, without ever having the right to be played and sung for themselves – one needed a Clint Eastwood, filmmaker really lover of the music of which he evoked a great figure, to make hear in full the pieces of Charlie Parker in bird.

On the soundtrack side, the film also benefits, in addition to the many fragments of songs sung by Presley, from numerous contributions from contemporary artists, summoned to evoke the musical universe within which the phenomenon emerged in the mid-1950s. Among the most memorable is Shonka Dukureh’s appearance as Big Mama Thornton for a fragment of the original version of “Hound Dog.”

To these resources are added two typical Hollywood springs – one from the Hollywood of always, the other from the Hollywood of now.

The first is based on the opposition between two contrasting figures, the bad guy and the good guy (who in this case is a nice girl), around the central character, everything is done not to show too much that he is hardly a puppet, a plaything of forces and interests that go beyond him.

Colonel Parker as an evil figure. | Warner Bros. France

The villain is therefore Colonel Parker, a gifted margoulin and smoker of first class; for that, there is hardly any debate. The trick (by Luhrmann, not Parker) here is to make him the narrator, taking advantage of the slaughter of Tom Hanks, even if it means abandoning him on the way – an Elvis really Told from Parker’s point of view to the end would have been otherwise surprising, but here it’s mostly about not surprising anyone.

Between irony and cynicism

But indeed, the figure of the manipulative mentor with an opaque past has many reasons to be assigned the role of villain. More debatable is the definition of nice in the guise of Priscilla, the rocker’s wife. That Elvis’ widow is also still a central figure in the business that bears his name, a figure without whose support such a film is impossible, is clearly no stranger to the way she is portrayed.

Between irony and pure cynicism, one of the most singular sequences is the one where Colonel Parker is supposed to literally invent merchandising, which will allow him to accumulate fortunes by selling everything and anything with the effigy of Elvis, process which also includes a film that pretends to criticize such greed.

The contemporary Hollywood process places itself under the sign of political correctness, almost making Elvis a hero of the struggle for civil rights, which is quite daring for the ultraconservative and conformist character that the singer was, beyond the decisive transgression constituted by his hypersexual acting.

The memorable irruption of one of the rocker’s flagship songs, “Hound Dog”, first sung by Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) at the Handy Club on Beale Street in Memphis. | Warner Bros. France

This soothing twist towards political correctness has its obvious reverse: if it underlines the very real passion of the young Presley for ghettoized black music in churches and brothels at the end of the 1940s, the film avoids any question concerning the obvious process of cultural appropriation on which the fame and fortune of the interpreter of “Heartbreak Hotel” were built.

And if film archives of the time come to remind us of the extremely violent, widespread and proud forms of anti-Black racism in the United States in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the construction of the career of Elvis seems to be done in full complicity with the great figures of rhythm ‘n’ blues, which is simplistic to say the least.

The evocation of violent changes in America is also one of the interesting aspects of the film, even if it takes care to exempt its central character from the many horrors that this society will have given birth to.

face and body

To the credit of the film, it is necessary to carry, be it in a paradoxical way, the choice of the main actor, Austin Butler, who has this smooth side, as if already plasticized in his own statue, which was one of the most bizarre aspects of the real Elvis as evidenced by all the images of him that we have.

The disembodied digital image (and possible injections having modified the appearance of the actor) thus encounter, almost fortuitously, a somewhat mysterious, somewhat murky truth.

A face so smooth that it seems artificial, a paradoxical point of contact between the character of the film and his model. | Warner Bros. France

This frozen side of the face, which contrasts so violently with the mobility well beyond the suggestive of bodily movements on stage, is moreover undoubtedly one of the reasons for the absolute failure of Presley’s career as an actor, despite the thirty -and-one films, all zero, in which he has acted – a phenomenon so massive that it would have deserved to stop there a little in the context of a film.

With the commodification of the spectacle and racism, the third subject (poorly) treated by the film concerns the sexual explosion represented by the appearance on stage of “Elvis the pelvis” within Puritan America.

This societal event destined to spread throughout the world, a real generational break, only appears in the film in an amusing, but mechanical and very simplifying mode – in particular by suggesting that, if all the girls immediately transform into bacchantes unleashed as soon as the singer appeared, the boys would be insensitive and hostile to it.

The more the film progresses, the more it appears how telling Elvis could be the occasion of an adventure of understanding, almost systematically sacrificed on the desire to capitalize on spectacular effects without depth, including about the noisy kitsch of the concerts –on is far from the tiered finesse of My life with Liberace by Steven Soderbergh.

At the end of the gleaming merry-go-round skilfully led by Baz Luhrmann, there is therefore a new avatar of this model of a blockbuster film which claims to show the negative aspects of the spectacle while drawing the most benefit from it. Glittering and flat, Elvis Presley never really inhabited the world as depicted in the film, a world of which he was nevertheless both the product and a particularly rich resource to illuminate it.

Jean-Michel Frodon’s film reviews are to be found in the show “Cultural Affinities” by Tewfik Hakem, Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. on France Culture.


by Baz Luhrmann

starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge


Duration: 2h39

Released June 22, 2022

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