The Friendly Film Fan Investigates the Baz Luhrmann Biopic
There is certainly no shortage of bad music biopics gracing the streaming or VOD worlds, and no lack of terrible ideas for them coming down the pike for future releases (like who decided the white guy who wrote Bohemian Rhapsody needed to do the badly-titled Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody? Does he only know how to name movies about artists after their own songs?). Many feared that Baz Luhrmann’s take on the rise and fall of the king of rock, one Elvis Presley, would fare a similar fate, and though I cannot in good conscience deny that Elvis is far from a good film, I also cannot discount the notion that – unlike some previously mentioned work – its approach is far more interesting than it has any right to be.
Baz Luhrmann is an interesting figure in the world of film. Whether his features have been hits or not, he’s never truly had one movie stand the test of time as an unassailable classic. Between 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby – both of which have their fans – there’s not truly been one more unifying film of his than 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, which won two Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture, but even that film has its detractors, and no one I know would say that it’s an essential classic on par with some other iconic movie musicals like The Sound of Music or Singin’ in the Rain. (Australia is simply a non-starter as far as acclaim and hardly anyone remembers Strictly Ballroom). If anything, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s one-of-a-kind stylizations that have kept him going in the movie world all these years. Even if one doesn’t typically connect with his work, one is always interested in discovering how he’ll attempt to pull off whatever he’s got coming next.
Elvis is an exhaustingly audacious and unforgettable ride, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it has more on its mind than making you feel as if you’ve just been lifted from its own version of the 50s wholesale, where a gyrating rockstar has somehow driven you into a frenzy for no reason, and by the time you realize it’s over, there’s naught left in you but the minute energy to walk out of the theater and go home. That’s not to say that there aren’t positives to be gleaned from the experience of watching it, but those positives aren’t likely to shine very brightly through what it essentially its own version of an Elvis Presley concert. Dripping in sweat, so frenzied it’s a wonder its own head is kept on straight, and entirely without remorse for the way it jostles the viewer around without reason or purpose, Elvis is exactly what one gets when Baz Luhrmann is the artist behind the lens. Much of the production makes no sense as the film actively avoids answering the question of why it was made now or made in this way, but it’s at least doing something with all the tools at its disposal, whereas most music biopics remain stuck in the age-old trick of “whole life story, no flash, end story.” Elvis is flashy. Elvis is dizzying. It’s simultaneously the fastest-moving movie you’ve ever seen and forty-seven hours long. And yet, though its stylization probably does more to help it seem good to those who don’t recognize (or don’t care about) all the familiar territory it treads, the ambitions of this film stretch so far that whatever else is stuck between its four walls can’t hope to reach anywhere near that length.
The concert sequences work about as well as any concert sequence in a biopic about Elvis would. They are the true measure of its audaciousness, its frenziedness, its endless ferocity. For most of the film, Luhrmann’s style works against it. In quieter scenes, in scenes without much going on, in sequences where we’re meant to be getting intimate with Elvis’ home life, the rapid-fire editing and odd camera angles make it so that we’re too distracted to connect with any of it, but during the concerts, it all comes together, not necessarily to bring iconic sequences to life, but to make one feel as if they’re at a crazy rock show. If anyone is the saving grace of Elvis, it’s Austin Butler as the titular star, and in these concerts, one can feel the energy he’s burning off just as much as the audience (the one in the film, that is) can. Butler is genuinely incredible here, unafraid to dip into the pool of impression when called for but never diving into its deep end. He’s every bit the human being and the character Elvis Presley was, all the good and the bad rolled into a single body that moves as the icon did and sings as the icon would. And yes, the concert sequences are where he stands out most, but it’s the quieter moments where he’s able to slow the audience down just enough to see that he's really put in the work here as a genuine performer.
If anyone threatens the draw of Elvis, however (and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this), it’s America’s Dad, Tom Hanks. Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker, who essentially ran the show for most of the rock star’s career and though it bewilders me to say it, there is no clue as to what Tom Hanks is doing in this role or with his strange accent in this film. Hanks has played so many iconic parts, one couldn’t fit them onto a single Mt Rushmore, but Colonel Tom Parker will not likely be one of them. The accent is distracting from the start, never becoming less so, and the prosthetic makeup they use on him looks genuinely terrible. It’s not exactly a bad performance on its face, but it’s easily the most distracting thing in the film, and because the film is narrated by Parker, it’s usually front-and-center.
That’s not the end of Elvis’ flaws, however, most of which are its over-stylization and reliance on filmmaking techniques that make no sense except as just being different from most others, but one of which is that it doesn’t really seem to have anything to say other than “this is how exhaustive being part of the Elvis train was.” Much has been made in the years since Elvis’ death of his appropriation of Black culture, in particular its musical roots, and while the film doesn’t exactly shy away from the notion of Elvis having grown up around this particular kind of music, it also doesn’t do much to say whether or not it condemned his use of it without much in the way of having given credit to those he took his largest inspiration from, especially as he rose up in an era when civil rights were under even more vicious circumstances than they are now. It’s presentation without condemnation or endorsement, and while it works well enough for the story this movie is telling, those hoping for something deeper may be disappointed to find that Elvis doesn’t really have much to say at all, apart from that he was taken advantage of a lot by Parker and those around him.
Overall, the audaciousness of Elvis acts as both its savior and its ultimate downfall, much like it did for the titular musical icon, and the exhaustion one feels when the whole affair is over may only be comparable to the exhaustion fans felt after seeing Elvis Presley at his best in show. Baz Luhrmann has crafted something unwieldy, undefinable, and partly impossible to revisit in the same way one interacts with it for the first time. Austin Butler is phenomenal as Elvis, but Tom Hanks’ performance as Colonel Tom Parker is one of his most perplexing, and most of the performances from everyone else are fairly forgettable. If one has the patience for Baz Luhrmann’s wild stylizations, I’d recommend Elvis as a theater experience. But only once.
I’m giving “Elvis” a 4.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from Director Robert Eggers.
In 2015, the Sundance Film Festival awarded its Best Director prize to one Robert Eggers, whose brilliant debut feature, The Witch, had just been shown to attendees, and was due for release in February after positive word spread from advanced screenings of the film. Eggers then quickly became somewhat of a curious name in the pantheon of auteur directors – at once a name to anticipate, yet entirely unpredictable as he began an era of singularity in filmmaking not seen since the early days of Ridley Scott (think Alien, Blade Runner). In fact, it was Eggers in large part who helped to usher in the horror heyday of indie studio A24, which distributed both The Witch and his subsequent masterwork, The Lighthouse. Committed completely to authenticity by way of period detail and an emphasis on realistic language, Eggers forged a path for himself with only two indie features under his belt, the latter of which received an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Enter Focus Features, with a larger playing field and a heftier budgetary capabilities than Eggers had yet experienced as a filmmaker, ready to take on the charge of bringing The Northman to the big screen. It may well be the smartest move the studio has ever made.
First viewed, The Northman can present something of a strange beast for the viewer: a tale of blood-soaked vengeance which fails to unleash the constancy of carnage its initial trailer insinuates (though it is nonetheless violent in bursts), but nevertheless remains as much an epic as director Robert Eggers ever could have promised, both in the scope of its narrative and the larger world it inhabits. Mythos and legend are not only alluded to but literalized as raven spirits and Allfathers appear on screen to assist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on his quest of vengeance; yet for all the bloodshed, there are equal parts mysticism and meditation to accompany it. Truthfully, with the state of the current blockbuster landscape, dominated by superheroes and held aloft by the scepter of IP, it would not scratch hyperbole to declare it a miracle that The Northman exists at all. And to exist in the state it does, a tentpole release imbued by near-total commitment to the authenticity of even its most disparate elements, an anomaly further.
What little fails to connect from Robert Egger’s latest delve into old-world cultures and hyper-specific language is a chunk of steel dropped atop the irons of filmmaking, its weight so miniscule it cannot hope to dent the material in a meaningful fashion, but a weight nonetheless. One scene of Nordic sport and a temporary slow-down of momentum aways into the second act (plus a slightly underdeveloped love story) is offset by breathtaking imagery, the film’s reverent dissection of vengeance as Viking lifestyle – along with all that entails – and a stunningly rendered Slavic raid, the intricacy of which is seldom seen in films of this scale. Patience may be required to endure Eggers’ two-hour revenge epic, but the film trusts its audience to find the experience withing such patience. Assisting the audience in this task is the work of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, their drum-backed score echoing through the film’s soundscape as swords and shields are splintered and thrust, as spells are cast and vengeance sought.
Yet without its stars, especially those closest to the film’s burning center, The Northman would be nothing more than a glorified Game of Thrones spinoff episode. Skarsgård, who stars as the film’s titular protagonist, has gone on record many times about his journey to getting the film made, and his commitment to its existence is evident in every second of his beastly, often unhinged Amleth. He is animalistic, occasionally to an unnerving physical degree, but just as often contemplative, emotionally challenged in key moments where his vulnerability is given a chance to shine (though not quite as bright as his beastliness), often in close context to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, a performance that works on its own but still feels slightly off-key here. Nicole Kidman and Claes Bang, as well as an unusually imposing Ethan Hawke, fill out the supporting cast in expert fashion, while Willem Dafoe and Icelandic popstar Björk make the most of their time with naught but three scenes between them.
It can be a fool’s errand to attempt pinning down what makes Robert Eggers’ efforts in filmmaking succeed to such a high level only three films deep; perhaps it’s the commitment to authenticity, perhaps it’s the intimacy with which he tells such grandiose stories, but always, the explanation eludes those who respond to the director’s work the most. The Northman may not be an outright masterpiece, or even Eggers’ best film on the whole, but it is one of the most original and engaging true epics to hit theaters in quite some time. Those who insist Hollywood is “out of ideas” or “only ever makes sequels/reboots” would be fools to let it pass unseen. The dollar speaks in the movie world; let it sing the songs of the Valkyries.
I’m giving “The Northman” an 8.8/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.