Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: Elvis (2022)

It's Oscar season once again, and that means it's time for me to resume my futile quest to see every Best Picture nominee of all time.  That's right, the Oscar Film Journal is back for its third season!  Of the ten brand new nominees I've only seen two thus far, starting with today's topic, Elvis....

Baz Luhrmann's stylish, epic biopic on the life of Elvis Presley (by way of Col. Tom Parker) is another energetic-to-a-fault entry in his Broadway-influenced filmography, full of lively music-driven set pieces and lots of kinetic cinematography, with a pretty stellar lead performance at its center.  Say what you will about the rest of the film (and I will), Austin Butler as the title character is basically note-perfect (no pun intended).  Butler splendidly captures Elvis's mix of good ol' boy southern charm and subversive sexual energy, admirably recreating what it must've been like for repressed 1950s audiences to glimpse this rockabilly powderkeg for the first time.  Elvis had a stage energy and physical presence like no other musical artist of his generation, and Butler gives every moment his all, disappearing into the role and earning every one of the season's accolades.

But as with the last biopic to earn an Academy Best Picture nod, Bohemian Rhapsody, Elvis doesn't have a ton of depth beyond the main performance.  Yes the last hour of the film presents a compelling conflict between the iconic star who wants to do something more serious with his career and his parasitic manager who will do anything not to lose his meal ticket, but the first two acts feel like the usual Oscar-bait biopic tropes.  
The first twenty minutes of the film are so frenetically edited I wasn't sure I'd get through the 160-minute running time.  The sequence where we see Elvis preparing to take the stage for the first time must have an average shot length of one second; so many unnecessary cuts and angle changes it's headache-inducing.   That this film earned a Best Editing nomination is quite frankly laughable.  Fortunately the editing rhythm settles down after this, but I was left wondering why that first segment was cut in that way, given that it wasn't reflective of the narrative's pacing.  

Anyway, we get to see Elvis's rise to fame, his primal sex appeal and its effect on pent-up audiences of the time, the authorities' attempts to either stifle him or make him go away, his enlisting in the military to avoid legal repercussions, and his comeback as a more de-fanged, homogenized star.  There's an interesting story in the first two acts, but the movie doesn't dig deeply enough into it, instead giving us more of a cursory history of one of pop culture's most recognizable icons.  It's only when Elvis and Col. Parker find themselves really at odds that the film gets its hands a little dirty.

And that brings me to Tom Hanks as Elvis's infamous manager.  A) I'm not sure why the filmmakers chose to tell this story from Parker's point of view and not Elvis's.  Given what a rather slimy opportunist Parker apparently was, it seems odd to ask us to attempt to identify with him and keep Elvis at arm's length, rather than let us fully understand what kind of man Elvis was.  We already know Elvis the icon, show us the man behind the icon.  And B) Hanks is the wrong actor to play this role.  Tom Hanks, one of the most naturally likable movie stars of all time, trying to convey the unctuousness and menace of a snake oil salesman like Parker, is a tall ask at best.  Yes, Hanks is a great actor, but this role is all wrong for him, and instead of seeing Tom Parker I only saw Tom Hanks in a fat suit, sporting a poor Dutch accent.  Someone like Gary Oldman, who can fully embody the worst sort of scumbag on film, is more this character's speed.  And since the story is told from Parker's point of view, complete with constant voiceover narration, it's hard to get away from Hanks's distractingly unconvincing portrayal.

In the end we're left with a technically well-made but still pretty shallow biography of a pop culture phenomenon we know so well already, we're given almost no new information about him.  I mentioned that Luhrmann's films were Broadway-influenced, maybe Elvis would've been more effective as a theater venture.

I give Elvis **1/2 out of ****.

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