Rare privilege, Baz Luhrmann was able to modify the logo of the multinational that 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 afterwards appears the one who is supposed to tell the story (although it is doubtful that he would have told it this way), Colonel Parkerimpresario demiurge of the rock star, that Tom Hanks delights in overplaying as a visionary and cynical Raminagrobis.
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 frame of biopic Baz Luhrmann, who avoids any questioning about the mechanics of this genre, deploys the most obvious, the most assured of his assets, which are two in number. One, more technical than artistic, is due to the director; the other, the music, is about it.
And in this case it has the considerable reinforcement of a handful of pieces musical historical, 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 artistssummoned to evoke the musical universe in which the phenomenon emerged in the mid-1950s. Among the most memorable is the appearance of Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton for a fragment of the original version of “Hounddog”.
To these resources are added two typical Hollywood springs – one of the Hollywood of always, the other of the Hollywood From now.
The first is based on the opposition between two contrasting figures, the mean one and the gentile (who is in this case a gentile), around the central character, of whom everything is done not to show too much that he is little more than a puppet, a toy 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 (of Luhrmann, not Parker) here is to make him the narrator, taking advantage of the slaughter of Tom Hankseven if it means abandoning it 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. May Elvis’ widow also always be a central figure in the company that bears his namea figure without whose backing 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 bearing the effigy of Elvis, a process which also includes a film that pretends to criticize such greed.
The contemporary Hollywood process is placed 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 was the singerbeyond 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 ofcultural appropriation on which the glory and fortune of the interpreter of Heartbreak Hotel.
And if filmed archives of the time come to recall the extremely violent, widespread and proud of themselves forms of racism anti-blacks in the United States in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the construction of the career of Elvis seems to be done in full collusion with the great figures of rhythm ‘n’ blues, which is simplistic to say the least.
The evocation of the violent mutations of theAmerica 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 principal actor, Austin Butlerwho has this smooth side, as if already plasticized into his own statue, which was one of the most bizarre aspects of the real Elvis as all the images of him we have attest to.
The disembodied digital image (and possible injections that altered the appearance of theactor) 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 fixed side of the face, which contrasts so violently with the mobility far 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-one moviesall zero, in which he shot – 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 (badly) treated by the film relates to the explosion sexual 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 unleashed bacchantes as soon as the singer appears, 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 will never have really inhabited the world as described by 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
Released June 22, 2022