A few days ago, I was minding my own business in the Cannes press lounge when I heard an Australian voice cut through the din: “Illviss is bed. End Tuhm Henks iss tuhribble.” I couldn’t tell if this woman had actually seen Elvis, or whether she was merely relaying information she’d heard secondhand, but either way, it was proof the buzz for Baz Luhrmann’s rock-and-roll blockbuster was not good. The funny thing is, now that my eyes have seen Elvis, I’m still not sure whether or not that random Australian was speaking the truth. Is Elvis bad? Is Tom Hanks terrible? You might as well ask, “Is philosophy purple?”
What I can tell you is that Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is undoubtedly a Baz Luhrmann Elvis movie. No other film at Cannes so proudly delivers exactly what it says on the tin, and I’ve seen The Silent Twins, where twins are silent; Nostalgia, where a guy is nostalgic; and Men, a movie with men. The lights had barely gone down in the Agnes Varda Theater before we’d been treated to a rhinestone-encrusted Warner Bros. logo and a whirling CGI version of the Las Vegas skyline transforming into a hospital IV drip. These may be the most subtle moments of the entire film.
The Baz Luhrmann version of a rock biopic goes like this: Take all the beats you remember from films like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman — from the evil manager to the mouthfuls of pills to the partner who represents everything good and pure in this world because you needed their permission to get the rights — then remix them to add Neptunes hi-hats and Max Martin’s greatest hits. In comedy they have a rule: Don’t put a hat on a hat. Baz Luhrmann spits on this rule. He will put a hat on a hat, then give that hat its own hat with a little spinning pinwheel on it. Why have only one montage when you can edit another montage inside that montage? Why have Elvis hang out in Black clubs on Beale Street if you’re not going to blast Doja Cat over the scene? While you’re at it, why not give Elvis’s crotch its own dedicated camera angle, green-screen Austin Butler into Elvis’s old movies, then do an eight-part split-screen? Baz has the technology; the only limit is his imagination, which is limitless. Taste is a lie invented by snobs.
As proof, we have Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, the dastardly Dutch devil on the sainted Elvis’s shoulder. It’s entirely possible God sent the coronavirus to Earth to prevent this performance from seeing the light of day. The reason He failed is because Hanks’s acting is so big that not even the Lord himself could overcome it. Imagine Hermann Göring playing the Penguin, and you’ll have a sense of Hanks’s register here. Opposite him is Austin Butler, playing a version of the King who is fundamentally empty whenever he’s not onstage. Despite impossible odds, Butler does not just refrain from embarrassing himself, but is actually, improbably … good? Luhrmann shoots his face like it’s the shark from Jaws, and when we do see him in full, he looks less like the real Elvis and more like Jonathan Rhys Meyers Elvis. But that doesn’t matter. He’s got the shimmy and he’s got the shake. If there’s any justice, the lords of rock will smelt Rami Malek’s Oscar down to make him a golden crown.
At the film’s press conference, cast and crew attempted to explain themselves to mere mortals. Luhrmann revealed that he was inspired by Shakespeare’s history plays, and also Amadeus, both of which spun real facts into grand fables. “I wanted it to be present now,” he said. Hence the hip-hop. “The lyrics to ‘Hound Dog’ were salacious, rude, unacceptable in polite society. When Doja Cat is translating it into rap, young viewers who only know Elvis from Lilo & Stitch or as a character in a video game can understand what the music felt like at the time. He was the original punk rock.”
The ultimate goal, as Luhrmann said in a quote that I suspect will form the tagline of Butler’s Oscar campaign, was to find “the man, not the icon.” Whether the film’s up-to-eleven approach truly serves the late Elvis Aaron Presley depends on who you talk to. “Elvis yanks and jerks and rattles all over the place, looking for shape and purpose in every direction and finding little of it,” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote. “To complain that Elvis is basically a compilation of musical-biopic conventions is a bit like complaining about a greatest-hits album,” argued the L.A. Times’ Justin Chang, who hailed Luhrmann’s “ability to suffuse clichés with sincerity, energy and feeling.”
If you want to know which way the Cannes audience is leaning, know that Wednesday night’s premiere was reportedly interrupted by audience members spontaneously standing up to applaud after a few of the musical numbers. They couldn’t help falling in love.
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