A film review by Dr. Lloyd Sederer
Rest assured. This is not just another Elvis movie. It is a mesmerizing, beautifully rendered, musical drama, with a river of R&B and Gospel running through so much of the film - going back to the boyhood origin story of Elvis Presley, and his adoration and synthesis of black and white music, blues, country and gospel, with all those pelvic and full body moves, too.
More about the movie to follow, but first let me explain why this is not just another…
This film’s greatest contribution may be its message that our culture and our country are at their best, blessed, when white and black harmonize, in music and in life. We observe both the bounty of racial equity, and the destructive forces of discrimination and division. Equity where ‘one plus one’ make for far more than two, polar to its counterpoint, the trauma of racial injustice. The wounds inflicted by trauma run deep and are lasting, urging us to continuously furnish their anodyne, human kindness and resolve. The story line of Elvis seems a harbinger of Black Lives Matter, well before that was what it was called.
Elvis’ (1935-1977) stardom was born as a teenager living in Memphis TN, where his parents had moved from Mississippi. Elvis’ spectacular life masked an increasingly lost man, distant and at odds with the two principal figures in his life, his wife and his showman manager. Elvis died (age 42) from his dependence on drugs and alcohol, a bloated and hollow shell of the most successful, single musical performer, ever.
Elvis, the film, underscores the assassinations (both in 1968) of the Reverend Martin Luther King (age 39), unsparingly followed, in months, by that of Robert F. Kennedy (age 42). These tragedies, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, five years earlier, are time travel that take us back to the volatile, angrily polarized 1960’s. A time when standing for societal rights could (did) get you jailed, beaten or killed.
Enter the exhaustion and mental agony of boundless fame. Elvis’ ‘solution’ became, first, the pills that fueled his ferocious pace and those that comforted him. Then came the end of pain at the end of a needle. Elvis’ pallor, stupor and increasingly bizarre behavior (like packing an arsenal of weapons) foretell the end of his story.
Baz Lurhmann (who directed, co-wrote and produced this film), surely wanted to call our attention to the growing restiveness and discordance of our country today. Where those in power blatantly and unashamedly capitalize on the brewing antipathy and desperation of substantial numbers of white, ‘Christian’ Americans, too many trapped in empty lives with little prospect to escape. The most extreme of whom are trying to topple our democracy.
Big, big kudos go to the performances of Austin Butler (Elvis) and Tom Hanks (the faux Colonel Tom Parker). Mr. Hanks is hardly recognizable when he first appears on screen. But when the camera comes close you know him by his eyes and fluid, picture perfect, facial expressions. The Colonel is the film’s ringmaster, the “King” maker who unleashed to the world what Elvis’ mother called his ‘God Given’ talent. Parker was devious and effective: whatever it took to make Elvis an enduring phenomenon and that he could take (steal) more than his half share of the deluge of money that enriched Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Mr. Hanks superlative acting is palpably present throughout this film. But it must be said that his performance is exceeded by Austin Butler (Elvis). With slicked, thick, black hair, a beautiful face and glacial blue eyes, a slender body (and perfect bum) adorned in leather and trinkets, a bonanza of memorable songs (sung by Mr. Butler until his voice is blended with actual recordings of the aging Elvis), and his infamous, tremulous dance moves make for a pageant to behold. Mr. Butler is Elvis. You can see for yourself.
The cast of Elvis truly amplify the film’s entertainment and power (I regret not being able to identify them within the word count of a short review). Theirs is a feast to express: music, dance, costuming, drama, social upheaval, and the upheaval in Elvis’ two complex, often contentious relationships: with his wife, Pricilla Presley (Olivia DeJong), and the Colonel.
Baz Lurmann, all that said, has to be deemed the impresario of Elvis. With a run time of 2 hours, 39 minutes, the film galloped from start to finish. He faithfully paints the Elvis era, with lavish costumes, big cars and casinos to beat the band. He also does not spare us the social commentary that enlightens this film, and we viewers. His credits (in film, though they extend to television and theatre) include other stunning productions, including, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby, Strictly Ballroom, and Australia (his native land).
Taking on a calcified culture of bigotry, rotting from self-interest and despair, comes at price. Enter Elvis’ exhaustion and the agony of fame. The center cannot hold. Pills fuel his ferocious pace or comfort him. Then comes the end of pain at the end of a needle.
‘Comet Elvis’ blazed so brightly - personally, musically, commercially and culturally - that he was The King. A glorious comet fated to burn to ashes.
I don’t have a numerical rating system for my reviews. Instead, I say, Bravo!
Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist, public health doctor and non-fiction writer.