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

As much as the life of Elvis Presley, Baz Luhrmann recounts the cultural contradictions of America in an overexcited musical.

There are tales 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 it, Elvis. The director of red Mill was not going to seize the biopic genre anyway to shave 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 with whom it all began), it was necessary to build him a monument to his excess. Not one more biopic, no: the biopic of biopics.

But even before the sound 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 great villain of history, as in these recent Disney, type Maleficent Where cruellawhere a famous villain gives his version of the facts. Bring in Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, engulfed in prostheses), the unreliable narrator of the Elvisian gesture. Fans of pop history know this high-ranking officer well: in the same way that Elvis would have “invented” rock, Colonel Parker wrote the Tables of the law of show-business, in what this one has more cynical and mercantile, selling dumpsters of his colt’s records, shaping his image, taking him to the top, before breaking his wings and locking him in a golden prison. It is an extraordinary narrative tool: the whole story of Elvis, all these images of Epinal, are reviewed in the light of the tension between the singer and his manager: the rock explosion of the middle of the fifties, the provocations sexual violence, the panic of virtue leagues, the laughable cinema parenthesis of the sixties, the extraordinary televised comeback of 68, the vegan and puffy seventies.

By rereading the legend in the light of the Elvis/Parker dialectic, Baz Lurhmann tells 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 themselves to the public) and their “snowman” side (cunning, hustler, huckster). Presley emerges from this fresco as a pop superhero, who manages to resolve America’s cultural contradictions. This miracle was achieved at the cost of a Faustian pact, exposed in the first part of the film, the most exuberant, which takes us through a kind of giant snow globe, an attractive and nightmarish funfair, like a musical version of Nightmare Alley. There are a priori something troubling to see this Elvis only a few months after Guillermo del Toro’s film, which also questioned the deadly dimension of American performing art, but there is in fact no coincidence: the 1947 version of Nightmare Alley was apparently Colonel Parker’s favorite movie…

Baz Luhrmann will end up slowing down in a more classic third act, where the film becomes a very moving human drama, a succession of oppressive scenes, which shows Elvis prisoner, only evolving in closed places (the Intercontinental hotel, the backseats of limos, his Graceland bedroom). Very beautiful moments which are also appreciated as a sincere enterprise of rehabilitation of a hated period of the King’s life. But it’s in his first hour that the filmmaker really gives his note of intent: hysterical and grandiose, take it or leave it, atomizing the candy-busting conventions of biographical picturefreeing itself from historical reality to tell not the deeds and gestures of a man but to make to feel physically to today’s spectators what Elvis truly was to the public of the 1950s. This is why, in the extraordinary sequence where the little guy from Tupelo becomes a stage phenomenon, he seems too her stage costume is as bright a pink as the guitars sound a little too glam rock. That’s not how Presley looked in 1954, but that’s how people saw him, perceived him.

Starting from this aesthetic bet, Baz Luhrmann can then do anything: biographical and musical shortcuts that will make specialists strangle themselves, outbursts of love towards his subject that is pure hagiography. Doesn’t matter: everything is in the service of a euphoric film, the best of its author since red Mill, which gives back to the Presley icon a stature and an importance that he had ended up losing, by dint of caricatures. In the title role, Austin Butler is in tune: faithful to his model, superbly reproducing the way he moves, he too is beyond the biopic, never in mechanical imitation, seeing himself rather as a color extra on the filmmaker’s colorful canvas. We come out of the film exhausted, exhilarated, knowing that we have just been taken for a ride in a merry-go-round piloted by very experienced showmen. The film, basically, questions the very manner of the art of its author. Is Baz Luhrmann a showman or one snow man ? Both, Colonel…

Elvisby Baz Luhrmann, with Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia De Jonge… Released on June 22.

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