“Elvis”, the raw rocker and the mobster
by Baz Luhrmann
American film, 2 h 39
December 15, 1956. In front of a white-hot room demanding the return on stage of Elvis Presley, the boss of the place goes up on the boards to demand silence and allow the following groups to play their songs. “I tell you bluntly: Elvis has left the building! » The phrase has stuck, imprinting the name of the famous rocker in an expression used in popular American parlance to signify that the carrots are well and truly cooked.
Recounted in this new cinematographic biography, this anecdote is revealing of what Baz Luhrmann came to seek in the life of the king of rock’n’roll. Today, Elvis has left the shores of popular culture for the younger generations, relegated to the radius of musical icons of the past who left too soon, such as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon. However, the director of Romeo + Juliet (1996), Red Mill ! (2001) and Gatsby the magnificent (2013) likes to take on legendary figures from music and literature to give them a new look that appeals to “teenage” audiences.
The Australian filmmaker renews, in part at least, this proven method, mixing sleeve effects and a trendy but anachronistic soundtrack, likening his films to long music videos. The opening sequence, a long flashback to the incredible life of Elvis Presley told by the voice that guided his destiny, that of his impresario, Colonel Parker, is like the Luhrmann style: “split screen”. (screen split in two, three, four…), frenetic editing, remixed Elvis hits…
Deus ex machine
That’s When Your Heartache Begins (“This is where your headache begins”), we sing then, in unison with the young Elvis on his very first record… Things improve thereafter, like That’s All Right (Mama) (“All is well, mom”), his second 45 laps.
Because Baz Luhrmann slows down the tempo to focus on his story, that of a little guy from Tennessee who became a planetary star thanks to his natural charisma, his electric voice and the meeting with the famous Colonel Parker, interpreted (under a few layers of silicone ) by the always impeccable Tom Hanks, here more duplicitous than ever.
The Australian filmmaker who loves to stuff his cinema with theatrical motifs had the brilliant idea of making this flirtatious and crafty character the deus ex machina of the film. The kind of guy you don’t shake hands with without immediately counting your fingers…
Neither colonel nor Parker, this paternalistic figure knew how to find the paths to success for his foal, whose psychological weaknesses he knew just as well how to exploit. Stunned by Elvis’ electrifying effect on young viewers, he drops the country star he was caring for to promote his new sensation.
Cantor of Deep America
Baz Luhrmann takes liberties with reality here. The parallel between the state of trance in which the young Elvis enters when he hears the gospels chanted by the black faithful in church and his famous swaying on stage is more than hazardous. Likewise, the rocker is a bit quickly dressed as a committed singer, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, of whom he was a fervent admirer.
Cantor of deep America, white of skin, Elvis Presley was, on the other hand, indeed a great admirer of black music, which he largely appropriated. With each stroke of the blues, he came to listen to them in the clubs of Beale Street, in Memphis, where he found his friends BB King, Big Mama Thornton or Little Richard.
Despite an interminable outcome, the film manages to revive the Elvis Presley myth, a beast of the stage inhabited by the love of his audience and tremendously served by the nuanced interpretation of Austin Butler. An actor who gives the illusion that Elvis has indeed returned to the building.
“Colonel Parker made and broke Elvis Presley”
Daniel Ichbiah, “Elvisologist”, author of Pop Icons #1, Elvis, Ed. The Fantastic Screen, 296 p., €24.90.
“Without Colonel Parker, no Elvis!” When he met him, the musician was a rising star in Memphis, Tennessee, and he made him a national star. A little as if a singer known in Auvergne became a European star… He brought him out of nowhere. By becoming his impresario and managing his image from start to finish, Colonel Parker has, in a way, invented the rock manager as we see him emerge later. But he was also a real crook. In the 1960s, he saw Elvis as a cash machine and not as an artist: he made him play the roles of a young first in the cinema and sing increasingly syrupy tunes. The Colonel did it and then defeated him, killing him artistically. »
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