Elvis: a flamboyant fresco that explodes the codes of the biopic [critique]

As much as the life of Elvis Presley, Baz Luhrmann tells the cultural contradictions of America in a supercharged musical.

Within the enormous Cannes cycle from France.TVthe first broadcast ofElvisof Baz Luhrmann, should make some noise this Sunday evening. In May 2022, the director of Red Mill ! had surprised the Croisette with this biopic of the King, led by a Austin Butler very involved (from his own admissionthe talented thirty-year-old had difficulty “find your voice” after spending so much time preparing for this role) and a Tom Hanks going against the grain as an evil mentor.

The editorial staff highly recommends it… in the meantime its 4 hour version ? The filmmaker promised to offer Elvis fans a new cut, in which the concert scenes will not be cut.

Tom Hanks feared for Austin Butler's mental health after Elvis

There are stories of Elvis Presley's life that begin in Memphis, Tennessee, the birthplace of the King's music. Baz Luhrmann's film begins in Las Vegas – a way of announcing from the outset that the tone will not be rock'n roll purism, but rather grandiloquence, kitsch, flamboyance and excess. That’s also Elvis. The director of red Mill was in any case not going to take over the biopic genre to tear down the walls and sign the umpteenth impersonal portrait of a music star. Presley being who he is (the king of kings, theentertainer original, the one who started it all), it was necessary to build a monument to his excess. Not one more biopic, no: the biopic of biopics.

But even before the sonic and visual debauchery, there is at the heart ofElvis an exciting dramaturgical idea. That of having entrusted the story, in retrospective voice-over, to the big bad guy of the story, as in these recent Disney, type Maleficent Or Cruellawhere a famous villain gives his version of the facts. Enter Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, engulfed in prosthetics), unreliable narrator of the Elvisian gesture. Fans of pop history know this high-ranking officer well: in the same way that Elvis is said to have “invented” rock, Colonel Parker wrote the Tables of the Law of Show Business, in what it has most cynical and mercantile, selling truckloads of records of his foal, shaping his image, taking him to the top, before breaking his wings and locking him in a golden prison. It's an extraordinary narrative tool: the whole story of Elvis, all these Epinal images, are reviewed in the light of the tension between the singer and his manager: the rock explosion of the mid-fifties, the provocations sexual, the panic of the leagues of virtue, the laughable cinema parenthesis of the sixties, the extraordinary television comeback of 68, the vegasian and puffy seventies.

Warner Bros.

By rereading the legend in the light of the Elvis/Parker dialectic, Baz Lurhmann tells the story of more than a singer: an entire country, constantly torn between opposing forces. God and the Devil, blues and country, whites and blacks, art and commerce, show and business. Colonel Parker himself perceived this duality, applying it to entertainers, shared according to him between their “showman” side (artist, sincere, offering himself to the public) and their “snowman” side (rogue, con artist, huckster). Presley emerges from this fresco as a pop superhero, who managed to resolve America's cultural contradictions. This miracle came at the price of a Faustian pact, exposed in the first part of the film, the most exuberant, which takes us into a kind of giant snow globe, a seductive and nightmarish funfair, like a musical comedy version of Nightmare Alley. There is a priori something disturbing to see this arise Elvis just a few months after Guillermo del Toro's film, which also questioned the deadly dimension of American performing arts, but there is in fact no coincidence: the 1947 version of Nightmare Alley was apparently Colonel Parker's favorite film…

Baz Luhrmann will eventually slow down in a more classic third act, where the film becomes a very moving human drama, a succession of oppressive scenes, which shows Elvis as a prisoner, only moving around in closed places (the Intercontinental Hotel, the back seats of limousines, his bedroom in Graceland). Very beautiful moments which can also be appreciated as a sincere undertaking of rehabilitation of a hated period in the life of the King. But it is in his first hour that the filmmaker truly strikes his mark: hysterical and grandiose, take it or leave it, atomizing the candy-smashing conventions of biographical picturefreeing himself from historical reality to tell not the facts and gestures of a man but to make to feel physically to today's spectators what Elvis truly was for the public of the 50s. This is why, in the extraordinary sequence where the little guy from Tupelo becomes a stage phenomenon, he seems too much painted to us, that her stage costume is such a showy pink, that the guitars sound a little too glam rock. That's not what Presley looked like in 1954, but that's how people saw him, perceived him.

Starting from this aesthetic bet, Baz Luhrmann can then allow himself anything: biographical and musical shortcuts that will make specialists choke up, loving outbursts towards his subject that are pure hagiography. No problem: everything serves a euphoric film, the best from its author since red Mill, which gives back to the icon Presley a stature and an importance that he had ended up losing, through caricatures. In the title role, Austin Butler is in tune: faithful to his model, superbly reproducing his way of moving, he is also in something beyond the biopic, never in mechanical imitation, seeing himself rather as a color additional on the filmmaker's colorful canvas. We leave the film exhausted, exhilarated, knowing that we have just been taken on a merry-go-round piloted by very experienced fairground people. The film, fundamentally, questions the very manner of its author's art. Is Baz Luhrmann a showman or one snowman ? Both, my Colonel…

Baz Luhrmann: “The life of Elvis allows us to better understand the history of America”


Leave a Comment