ELVIS (2022)

June 23, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m one who grew up spinning my mother’s Elvis 45s and LPs for hours on end. Long before I ever saw one of his movies, I had memorized and mimicked the vocals and stylings of his early recordings. For me, the love of his music was ingrained before any understanding of the cultural influence and impact that had occurred years prior. This background undoubtedly played a significant role in my enjoyment of this film. Many will find bashing this movie to be easy and justified, and I do understand. There are those who view Elvis Presley as little more than a punchline – a drug addicted fat guy chomping on peanut butter and banana sandwiches and forgetting lyrics on stage. Then there are those who view writer-director Baz Luhrmann (THE GREAT GATSBY, MOULIN ROUGE) as a cinematic trickster more committed to flashy visuals than facts and story. For me, the visuals and music of this spectacle were driven by a fully committed actor and a filmmaker serving up a tribute to a cultural icon.

Luhrmann co-wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce (a frequent Luhrman collaborator), and their approach seems three-pronged: the background history and influences of Elvis’ music, the “caught-in-a-trap” life he led, and the force that was Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis’ manager). In fact, much of the story is told from the tainted perspective of an elderly Parker, who is in poor health and near death. In Parker’s mind, he is the ‘hero’ who delivered Elvis to the world, and not the evil huckster who rode his meal-ticket into the ground, while severely limiting artistic opportunities like serious movie roles and international tours.

Playing Colonel Tom Parker, buried beneath a fat suit and facial prosthetics, is Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Further distractions come courtesy of the accent, which is actually pretty close to Parker’s speech pattern. We see Parker’s carnival background and hustler mentality, and watch as he first drools over Elvis along with the teenage girls in the Louisiana Hayride audience … although while the girls enjoy the sexuality, Parker sees nothing but dollar signs. It’s atop a Ferris wheel that Parker entices Elvis with dreams of stardom and wish fulfillment. Elvis is played by Austin Butler (Tex Watson in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD), and Butler perfectly captures Elvis’ early innocence and naivety, as well as the immense physicality of those early stage performances that sent girls (and some boys) into a tizzy.

Luhrmann takes us back to Presley’s childhood in poverty while living in Tupelo, Mississippi, and it’s here as a young boy wearing a Captain Marvel Jr logo (played by Chaydon Jay) where he is first moved by the gospel music from inside the black church. In fact, Luhrmann makes a point throughout the film to connect Elvis to the music roots of blacks – gospel, blues, R&B. He later befriends BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), and is awed by Little Richard (Alton Mason), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), and a stunning Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola). This is crucial as Luhrmann is aware of the ’cultural appropriation’ talk associated with Elvis these days, and how the singer absorbed the music that moved him and presented it to the wider audiences that had been previously untouchable by black artists. The influences are beyond debate just as the opening of doors was welcome.

Elvis’ path from Beale Street to Sun Records to RCA is tracked. The Sam Phillips and Sun Records connection is shown only briefly, but Phillips (Josh McConville) is acknowledged for releasing Elvis (driving his Crown Electric truck) so that he could sign with Parker. It was a remarkably standup thing to do and a familiar situation that has resulted in many court battles over the years for other artists and agents. We get a glimpse at Elvis’ extremely close bond with his mother Gladys (Helen Thompson), whose faith and heavy drinking are both on display. We can see the pride Elvis carries as he shows her Graceland for the first time. Richard Roxburgh plays Elvis’ father Vernon, and as time goes on, he’s not portrayed in a flattering light – seemingly more interested in money than in doing right by his son.

Elvis enlisting in the Army is viewed as a necessary public relations step due to the outcry from religious conservatives over his onstage movements clearly sponsored by the devil himself. We see one scene of Elvis courting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), but she’s only described as a teenager, so Luhrmann has chosen to gloss over the age difference and the unusual circumstances of those years between meeting and marrying. Also receiving the ‘glossed over’ treatment is Elvis’ movie career. It’s handled via montage with Austin Butler’s face superimposed into actual clips of the films. Another element that the film quickly skips through is the “Memphis Mafia”, Elvis’ entourage of assistants and hangers-on. They are mostly shown here as background characters, and some of these guys went on to write ‘tell-all’ books to line their pockets after Elvis died. It turns out the Elvis’ loyalty to them was not reciprocated once the gravy train ended.

Colonel Tom Parker was neither a Colonel nor a Parker. He was born Andreas van Kujik in The Netherlands and emigrated to the United States in order to pursue the American Dream and boat loads of gambling debt. Supposedly he treated Elvis pretty well, but it’s frustrating to know that so many business decisions were based on Parker’s personal needs rather than Elvis’ artistic development. As you would expect, Tom Hanks handles the role of ‘villain’ and Snowman quite well.

Austin Butler portrays Elvis from the early 1950’s to the mid-1970’s. It’s a terrific performance and one worthy of great admiration. Butler immersed himself in Elvis and it shows, perhaps never better than the infamous 1968 Comeback special. Black leather in the round, rocking to his hits, was a smash in TV ratings, and re-established Elvis as the star he was. The special also features Elvis in white suit belting out “If I Can Dream”, and Butler nails the emotion-filled performance. I consider this (Elvis’ actual song) one of the all-time most memorable rock/pop moments alongside Bill Haley and the Comets releasing “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (1954), Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (1955), Bob Dylan going electric at Newport Folk Festival (1965), Sinatra singing “My Way” (1969), Hendrix at Woodstock (1969), Live Aid (1985), and Kurt Cobain/Nirvana unplugged on MTV (1994).

We go behind the scenes for the dealings that brought Elvis and his new big band approach to the International Hotel (now The Hilton) in Las Vegas. Once again, Butler is spot on during the stage performances, and this brings the musical catalog full circle. Elvis’ musical roots and that early fascination never left him – regardless of whether it was his early trio, or the orchestra in Vegas. Despite the extended run time of 2:49, Luhrmann had to make some tough choices on what to include and what to omit. In a career that spanned less than 25 years, Elvis recorded more than 700 songs … none with the help of Auto-Tune. His amazing voice could be smooth, soulful, playful, or powerful, depending on the song – even at the end. We see one of his final stage performances (with Butler’s face superimposed over the clip) recorded a mere two months before his death in 1977. With guitarist Charlie Hodge holding the microphone, a bloated and drug-addicted Elvis delivered a most memorable rendition of “Unchained Melody”. He would soon be dead at age 42.

Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler have provided a dazzling look at a remarkable career that changed the music industry and society. The film is quite a visual and musical and historical treat. We have grown so accustomed to reveling in the “bad” side of celebrities, that a celebration of one might seem trite to some. However, fans will enjoy most of this, despite the constant feeling that Elvis was trapped and lived with an underlying sadness for so many years. Elvis may have left the building, but Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler, and the musical legacy continue ‘Taking Care of Business in a Flash.”

The film opens in theaters on June 24, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

July 25, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hippies, westerns, short skirts, pompadours, catchy pop songs … all have (mostly) disappeared from our world. Back to save the day and the memories, and twist a little history, is Quentin Tarantino, the ultimate film geek. His latest reminds us of a bygone era of movie stars and old school filmmaking … a once beloved industry which has been described as being on life support. There have been plenty of big screen love letters to Hollywood, but few if any, were filmed with so many personal touches and call-backs to the director’s own films.

In keeping with the request from Mr. Tarantino, this review will not include any spoilers or details that might negatively impact anyone’s initial viewing of the film. It’s a reasonable request since the film is so unique and literally packed with nostalgia, sight gags, and historical bits and pieces – some accurate, some not so much. There is a lot to take in and process, and the full impact of the initial viewing might result in awe, shock or disgust … and maybe even all of the above. So this will be a pretty simple overview peppered with some insight that should enhance rather than spoil the experience.

The film covers about 6 months in 1969, but in reality, it all takes place (at least what we see on screen) in 3 days. Leonardo DiCaprio (possibly his best ever performance) plays Rick Dalton, an actor who had a hit (fictional) TV western series in the 50’s and 60’s entitled “Bounty Law”. Since the show ended, Rick has been unable to make the successful transition to movies. For comparison, think of Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds – all actors in TV westerns who found greater career success in movies. Brad Pitt (the epitome of cool) stars as Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double, friend, driver, handyman, etc. While Rick is desperate to find the next stage of his career and fend off being forgotten, Cliff, a Vietnam vet, is accepting of his lot in life. Rick lives in a swanky Hollywood Hills home next door to hotshot director Roman Polanski and his starlet wife Sharon Tate; and Cliff lives in a trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In with his well-trained Pit Bull Brandy.

There are multiple parallel stories to follow, and a key one involves the aforementioned Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie nails the role and bounces about town with the energy and sweet aura that we imagine she possessed. All 3 of the lead actors – DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie – have knockout scenes that I’d love to be able to discuss, but I’m not sure how without giving away too much. What I can say is that each of these three talented actors prove that movie stars still exist.

This is Tarantino’s 9th film as a director (he counts the 2-part KILL BILL as one film), and he claims he will stop making films after number 10. There are multiple features we can count on in a QT film, and a ridiculously deep supporting cast is one. Going through each of the characters played by actors you will recognize would take a page and a half, so I’ll cover only a few here. Margaret Qualley is a scene stealer as Pussycat, one of the Manson family girls. You likely remember her from the recent “Fosse/Verdon” or “The Leftovers”, and here she fully embraces the hippie look and spirit. Emile Hirsch plays hairdresser Jay Sebring, one of those in the house with Ms. Tate on that fateful night, and Mike Moh plays Bruce Lee so convincingly that I was momentarily confused when he took off his sunglasses. Also making appearances are some Tarantino regulars: Kurt Russell (as a stunt coordinator and narrator), Michael Madsen (as an actor), and Bruce Dern as George Spahn (a late replacement after Burt Reynolds passed away). Others of note include Maya Hawke (Uma Thurman’s daughter), Austin Butler (recently cast in the title role of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic) as Tex Watson, Rumer Willis (Bruce’s daughter) as actress Joanna Pettet, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino as agent Marvin Schwarzs, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, and the late Luke Perry as actor Wayne Maunder (“Lancer”). 90 year old Clu Gulager (“The Virginian”, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) makes an appearance, and Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich from THE SOUND OF MUSIC) tears into his role with gusto as director Sam Wanamaker. There is even a TV Guide cover featuring the late great character actor Andrew Duggan (“Lancer”). Some of these, and many more, are like cameos, but it’s still fascinating to see the faces.

1969 was 50 years ago, and Tarantino does a remarkable job of recreating the look of Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, Cielo Drive, and studio backlots. Much credit goes to Production Designer Barbara Ling and Set Decorator Nancy Haigh (frequent Coen Brothers collaborator and an Oscar winner for BUGSY). Arianne Phillips does a tremendous job with the costumes that look natural for the time period, and not like something right off the wardrobe racks. Three-time Oscar winning Cinematographer Robert Richardson (HUGO, THE AVIATOR, JFK) is back for his 6th Tarantino film, and he captures the look and feel and vibe of a time that is so personal to the director.

It’s been three and a half years since THE HATEFUL EIGHT, Tarantino’s most recent film, and probably his worst received. This one is clearly personal as it captures the time and place that he fell in love with movies. The dichotomy of rising starlet and fading cowboy as neighbors is a brilliant way to make a point about times changing. This was a time of transition in the United States – a new culture was upon us, and whatever innocence remained, was surely snuffed out on a hot August night in 1969. As usual, his use of music serves a purpose. We are treated to Roy Head, The Royal Guardsmen, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, among others. QT also shows us plenty of bare feet (another trademark). What is unusual is that the film lacks the trademark mass dialogue. This one kind of meanders … right up until it doesn’t.

Quentin Tarantino is a living, breathing film geek (that’s a compliment) who has earned the right to make the movies he wants to make. This one took him a lifetime to live, 5 years to write, and it will take you 161 minutes to watch. It was warmly received at Cannes, but no one can expect to “catch” everything Mr. Tarantino has served up in one viewing. That said, one viewing will likely be one too many for quite a few folks (especially many under 40 who have no recollection of this Hollywood). Some will categorize this as an overindulgent nostalgia trip for movie nerds. And they are likely correct. But for those of us who complain that too many movies are remakes, re-treads and comic books, there is no denying Tarantino delivers a unique and creative viewing experience – and it’s not meant for everyone.

watch the trailer: