See Elvis Before It Leaves the Building - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
See Elvis Before It Leaves the Building
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Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Hugh Stewart. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is big, bravura, badass filmmaking in the service of a great American story. And the great American at its center is none other than Elvis Aaron Presley, a supernova among stars.

Luhrmann, his first-rate cast, and top-of-game talent behind the cameras trace the King of Rock and Roll from his unexceptional childhood to his sudden splash on the musical scene, his rocket ride to unparalleled world fame, and his slow glide and crash back to Earth. Elvis went from sea level to the stratosphere to six feet under before age 43.

Much of this exceptional film’s dramatic tension involves the tug of war between Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker, his cash-trumps-art manager. While Elvis wanted to be himself — a white man who sang black music — Parker often pushed him to play it safe, thinking (as robber Willie Sutton said of banks) “That’s where the money is.”

As it happens, Elvis usually was right: His audience wanted the edgy, sexy, genuine article, not the “New Elvis” sanitized to appease networks censors and nervous preachers. Regardless, at least according to this motion picture, Colonel Parker generally got his way, which made Elvis enormously rich and famous, but also creatively unfulfilled and frustrated to the point of self-destruction.

Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Hugh Stewart. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Hugh Stewart. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Beyond this Mephistophelian dialectic, Elvis also highlights two key aspects of American exceptionalism: the eternal quest for success and this country’s infinite paths to personal reinvention.

First, rags to riches: Elvis grew up in what charitably could be called a shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. From these dusty, impoverished roots, Elvis became a small-scale truck driver, recorded “That’s All Right” for Sun Records in July 1954, and swiftly soared to the commanding heights of the recording, film, television, nightclub, and concert industries — with all the ensuing glitter, gold, and glory. As Yogi Berra would have observed: Only in America.

Second, reinvention: America is the land of second, third, and fourth chances. Elvis had his stumbles along the way. The country boy who made it big ran into trouble early on, as the film dramatizes, because his hips swiveled on stage more than many thought appropriate in the Eisenhower Era.

Elvis then became a U.S. soldier in Germany, thanks to a draft notice that was conveniently timed — at least from the standpoint of his stuffy critics.

Elvis returned to America and exploded in Hollywood, starring in 33 big-studio films in which he sang more than acted.

As things eventually dimmed on the silver screen, Elvis made a fresh splash in December 1968 with a smash-hit comeback NBC-TV special, which Luhrmann beautifully recreates.

Elvis’ third reincarnation was as a Las Vegas sensation, where the sparkling capes, sequined jumpsuits, and swelling waistline defined the ever-darkening and ultimately deadly years of “Fat Elvis.”

This unforgettable epic unfolds with visual panache, sonic excitement, and the frequent interweaving of Elvis’ humble roots and his increasing extravagance as his career soared. Luhrmann astonishes with relentless razzle and dynamic dazzle. And the cinematic artists he rallies to this creative cause deserve abundant recognition at awards time. Three cheers to Warner Bros. for husbanding this celluloid juggernaut.

Do not await home video. See this stellar achievement on the biggest available screen. That’s where cinematographer Mandy Walker stuns with iridescent images and gigahertz of vibrancy.

Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Hugh Stewart. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Hugh Stewart. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Production designer Karen Murphy and costumer Catherine Martin silkily present the appearances and textures of living room decorations, personal attire, on-stage wardrobes, and the films and TV programs of the 1950s through the ’70s.

Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond deserve the next Academy Award for editing, if nothing else for manual dexterity. They deftly juggle full- and split-screen sequences from multiple decades, numerous newspaper headlines, comic-book-style elements, and even a mid-film, movie-within-a-movie, ’60s-style title sequence. Elvis is omakase for the eyes.

Production music supervisor Cameron Bruce and his team thrill the ears with one song after another. They are all played on camera with passion and excitement — as simply as black bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup singing “That’s All Right” solo, to Elvis himself arranging that song (his first hit) onstage in Las Vegas, with his band, two sets of background singers, a horn section, and a veritable philharmonic eager to embody his creative vision.

Actor Austin Butler is a sensation in the title role and as a musical performer who sings his own songs throughout this film, save for a few late-career tracks in which the mix includes Elvis’ voice. Butler looks and sounds like Presley and grinds his 30-year-old pelvis in Elvis’ then-nearly-R-rated fashion.

As the scheming-but-effective impresario, Tom Hanks exhibits what must have been Colonel Parker’s appeal to Elvis — a father-like sense of concern and personal care and a lust for wealth that attracted a young man with Delta-sized dreams.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Hanks also reflects Parker’s snake-like aspects, from his shadowy national origins to his financial skullduggery at the expense of Elvis and the Presley family. Hanks’ odd accent, bizarre verbal tics, and jowly appearance seem excessive and just plain weird. But if Parker looked and spoke that way, then Hanks’ unusual performance is just what the colonel ordered.

A compelling cast inhabits scores of supporting roles across Elvis’ incredibly eventful 42 years. Chief among them is Olivia DeJonge, who is heartbreaking as Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ initially enthralled, increasingly estranged wife.

The only quibble with Elvis is that squeezing such an outsized life into a microscopic fraction of four decades inevitably conflates events. Ignorance is bliss for non-students of history. But being burdened with knowledge of the past can be maddening.

As Elvis and his cronies record a Christmas special, their work is interrupted by the shocking news of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Stop the tape!

This moving scene is very oddly timed. Sirhan Sirhan killed RFK on June 5, 1968. So, either these folks were shooting a Yuletide show six months early, or somehow, this horrible development did not reach them until a half-year later.

A few other milestones from the 1960s and ’70s arise, but not where they belong in history textbooks.

Such chronological sloppiness leaves savvy audience members scratching their heads when they should be suspending their disbelief. Screenwriters Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner — who penned an otherwise riveting script — should have respected such details.

But these anachronistic stones barely slow Luhrmann’s mighty Mississippi. Elvis Presley — the best-selling solo musician of all time — was an American original like no other. In showcasing his incredible life, Elvis is fascinating, vivacious, pure, non-stop tingle.

Manhattan-based political commentor Deroy Murdock is a Fox News contributor.

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