Elvis in the Nightmare Alley

elvis2Elvis, 2022, 159 mins, 4K UHD

As one might expect from Baz Luhrmann, Elvis is an exhausting, dizzying ride. Which, for fans of Luhrmann’s films, is something that fills one with a particular excitement and sense of anticipation- while for detractors of his style, must fill them with dread. To be brutally honest, that’s this film and my post here in a nutshell, I don’t really need to write anything more. Lovers are gonna love, haters gonna hate. Whatever its merits as a dramatic work, its intoxicating stuff, a trip to a cinematic carnival of the senses- bright lights, incredible music, a kinetic energy that is almost tangible: Pure Cinema.

But as far as being a dramatic work, I’m not entirely sure, for instance, how much this film really functions as the biopic some may have been expecting. Its there, but its almost incidental to the cinematic ride that Luhrmann is intent on taking us on. This isn’t really an examination of Elvis the man; his talent, his sexuality, his womanising, his drug-taking, which ideally would surely make -maybe someday will make- a dark and fascinating psychodrama. Instead this is Elvis the Myth, Elvis the Icon, Elvis the amusement ride.- strap yourselves in!

elvis3Which is not to suggest that this is superfluous, empty nonsense, its certainly more sophisticated than that. For one thing, its almost like a particularly nasty horror movie in a musical disguise: to be frank, I’ve spent the last few days quite haunted by it. There is something quite nightmarish about it,  if only because there is just something about Tom Hank’s notably grotesque Colonel Tom Parker that gets under one’s skin. He’s the Devil in a Stetson, and he seduces and betrays poor Elvis in such an intense, heightened way that it approaches religious allegory (albeit I’m sure plenty have equated Elvis with Jesus before) and Luhrmann even cheekily throws in a nod to Welles’ The Lady of Shanghai with a hall of mirrors in which the Devil traps our hero in his web. Parker is a sly Machiavellian monster who essentially ensures Elvis cannot himself be blamed for his own tragedy: Elvis is a victim here and Luhrmann ensures its a seductive proposition. He may be exaggerating the truth here but it is essentially the truth

Austin Butler is something of a revelation- writing as a veteran of seeing the John Carpenter Elvis: The Movie in the cinema back in my youth, in which, as bizarre as it sounds today, Kurt Russell ‘played’ Elvis, I reckoned nobody, surely nobody could ever convincingly play Elvis (a sentiment only further proved by later Hollywood depictions – Val Kilmer, anyone?). But there is something remarkable about Austin Butler here. Aided by some excellent make-up any disbelief gradually fades away; the sheer physicality of his performance is brilliant and likely worthy of an Oscar nod. Meanwhile, much has been said regards Tom Hanks buried under all that prosthetics (some seem to find it patently ridiculous) but as I noted earlier, I found his Colonel Tom Parker quite disturbing, and I suspect there’s a certain craft on display here (those eyes, dammit, for one thing) from Hanks that is unfairly belied by all that make-up: I think Hanks is excellent and I despised him utterly for most of the movie.

I was reminded, watching Elvis, of films like Oliver Stone’s JFK or, obviously, Luhrmann’s own Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (a film I adore); hyper-kinetic cinema, full of bravura cinematography and editing, bewitching use of music and visual effects, films that are dizzying glorifications of manipulation. Its easy to get carried away by it, and I wonder how well Elvis might hold up on repeat viewings, but I absolutely enjoyed it this first time around. There’s a nagging feeling of a rushed ending, of perhaps entire subplots missing on the cutting-room floor (already there are rumours of a longer cut or mini-series edition) and certainly a sense that we are seeing highlights of the icons life and not the substance of it, no real explanation of what made Presley tick. This isn’t that movie. But it is a Baz Luhrmann movie.

More than that though, far as I’m concerned, its a Baz Luhrmann horror movie: over the past few days I have been so surprised by just how much Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker must have gotten under my skin. Utterly disturbing, Hanks as a monster has quite totally freaked me out.  You’re the devil in disguise, Tom, and you got me all shook up.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist).

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