Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic sensationally captures how at home the King was on stage and how lost he was off it, writes Alistair Harkness
Elvis (12A) ****
Moon, 66 questions (12A) ****
The Big Hit (15)**
Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann’s penchant for chic, glitzy musical excess finds a fitting theme in elvis, a cradle-to-grave biopic about the king of rock ‘n’ roll whose sad and tragic end as a cash cow in Las Vegas provides a Gatsby-esque critique of the self-mythologizing nature of the American dream. Luhrmann’s last film, of course, was his deliberately over-the-top adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, and he brings many of his stylistic excesses to Presley’s life, albeit in a way that not only captures the shallowness of the show business that makes the money, but the thrill of one phenomenon as it takes shape.
With the relatively unknown Austin Butler as Presley and a prosthetically chubby Tom Hanks as his all-controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker, the film uses Parker as its unreliable narrator and begins in 1997 with Parker at the end of his life, full of self-confidence – a shame when he tells how he has become the villain of this story. No doubt he is too. A fairground vendor of mysterious origins, the moment he first hears Elvis, he sees dollar signs and forces him to sign an exclusive, exploitative contract during a scene Luhrmann stages in a fairground hall of mirrors – an ominous portent of the bewildering reality in which he finds himself about to cast Elvis.
Hanks’ toad-like performance and hilariously absurd Euro-pudding accent subverts his own nice-guy image to a convincingly grotesque effect, and certainly stands in stark contrast to the quintessentially American boy Parker is trying to sell to the world. But Butler’s casting as Elvis is also clever. He may not be as handsome as Presley was in his prime (although realistically, who is that?), but as a former child actor whose most prominent adult role to date has been Charles Manson’s pupil Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, he conveys the Innocence and danger that made Elvis such a force to be reckoned with when he first appeared.
Those early performance scenes are particularly good. Luhrmann uses an arsenal of crash cuts and crotch zooms to depict the hormone-sapping, lingerie-dampening arousal that Elvis and his pelvis induces in dozens of girls, women, and boys unaccustomed to indulging in their own sexual desires place. But he’s also careful to acknowledge the lineage of black artists whose music Elvis picked up from Osmose as a dirt-poor white kid growing up in a mostly black neighborhood. The film intersects performance sequences throughout his career with scenes of Elvis sneaking into blues clubs and gospel churches as a child, and presents Elvis’ music not as an act of cultural appropriation (at least not on his part) but rather as an unconscious amalgamation of styles from someone who respected his origins.
Nevertheless, Luhrmann is also careful not to make great demands on Elvis’ music, which transcends racial boundaries. We may keep coming back to how obsessed Elvis was with comic book hero Captain Marvel Jr. as a kid, but he’s no savior: we see him reluctantly playing separate shows (unlike the Beatles – seen briefly in archive footage). – who refused). . But the film also tries to put us in the moment with Elvis as he processes the weirdness of his world and the world around him. He’s the first global pop superstar through the gate; There wasn’t exactly a textbook on how to make a career.
The film packs a lot into its 160-minute run, which is perhaps why Luhrmann is doing it at a frenetic pace – although that also feels appropriate for life on screen. As it spins through the moments of crisis in his life, roulette wheels and vinyl records become favorite visual subjects for the relentless cycle that Parker put Elvis through once he had his claws in. Above all, however, Luhrmann succeeds in capturing sensationally how at home Elvis was on stage – and, even more poignantly, how lost he was off it.
Greek filmmaker Jacqueline Lentzou makes a promising debut Moon, 66 questions, a compelling portrait of an estranged father-daughter relationship steeped in the weirdness of Yorgos Lanthimos’ early films. 20-year-old Artemis (Sofia Kokkali) is filled with guilt about returning to Athens to care for her ailing father Paris (Lazaros Georgakopoulos) after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and her mother erected an inexplicable barrier between them. The forced physical intimacy of this new dynamic becomes a kind of emotional catalyst for Artemis, who begins to process her grievances by unconsciously acting like a teenager – at one point even surprising herself by deliberately shutting the Paris car scrap drives. The film also creatively uses a stack of VHS home movies to subtly uncover the mystery at the heart of her Artemis’ dysfunctional family. The end result is both unusual and compassionate in equal measure.