ELVIS (2022)

By Marc S. Sanders

Baz Luhrmann’s take on the legacy of Elvis Presley will certainly grab your attention, even if the director refuses to carry an attention span of his own lasting longer seven seconds.  Having watched the celebrated film from 2022 for a second time, eight months after my first viewing, I see more faults with the picture than achievements.  Elvis is strongest when the carnival ride stops moving, allowing its cast of colorful characters to have conversations with one another. 

Austin Butler is now a known name for his portrayal of the King Of Rock N Roll, whose career was squandered by a slimy business manager known as Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).  Butler personifies what pop culture has recognized first and foremost about Elvis Presley, everything from the wild stage presence of dancing to the deep rockabilly singing or speaking (you decide) vocals.  He really bears an uncanny resemblance to The King as well.  Butler could have been better though had he been graced with a more economical and thoughtful script.  I don’t think Austin Butler was given enough to do.

The Elvis character hardly shares any conversations with any of the supporting characters.  That’s the film’s major shortcoming.  There are a scant few scenes of dialogue exchanged between Elvis and his mother and father, between Elvis and the Colonel, and between Elvis and his wife Priscilla Presley.  Baz Lurhmann wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce, and I guess it incorporates some major moments within the singer’s illustrious career but nothing seems to hold much weight.  Elvis gets threatened with being arrested for his pelvis swiveling gyrations while he performs.  We get a close up of the state Governor who leads this censoring campaign, but we don’t get an idea of his warped logic.  Elvis gets drafted into the army and the Colonel thinks to sell it as a comeback when his tour of duty will finish in two years.  Two years go by in a matter of sixty seconds however and the King is back to touring and donning the outrageous costumes, but we don’t see the marketing machinations led by the Colonel.  Where’s the deviousness and conniving?  Where’s the brainwashing of the public and our hero?  Elvis is also bedhopping from one woman to another and popping pills, but these incidents which arguably led to his life being cut short are glossed over with a sway of Luhrmann’s camera work.  When the third act of the film arrived, I didn’t even know Elvis was sleeping around until Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) announces she is leaving him.  On her way out the door, the two characters share about five or six lines of dialogue before the film races to another transition or scenario.  In this film, the love of Elvis’ life, Priscilla, holds about as much presence as an extra in the film.  Their relationship isn’t explored like Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, for example.

Lurhmann edits his scenes with title cards of what year it is or what place it is as Elvis tours the country.  Yet, I never got the feeling that I was inside these time periods.  A minute to a minute and a half go by and suddenly it is “One Year Later.”  What difference does that make?  Where’s the transition in Elvis’ character?  When exactly did he become a sensation?  Suddenly I see that Elvis is moving into a mansion (I think is what will eventually be Graceland) with his parents and I presume he’s…well…he’s a success?!?!?!

An opportunity presents itself for Elvis to have a mentor into the world of celebrity stardom by means of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but as soon as he introduces himself, the man disappears and is not heard from again.  Elvis only offers a piece of dialogue later suggesting that “B.B. King once said…”  There’s no significance to the influences or naysayers who enter Elvis’ life.  The same goes for Elvis’ mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson).  The Colonel will assure Elvis’ parents that he has their son’s best interests in mind as he blossoms his career, but we don’t get enough of a solid foundation for his mother’s apprehension or her religious doctrine or the alcohol addiction that kills her.  

I know, reader.  You can argue that I’m offering descriptive text for these people.  However, the text that I give in this column is all that you see.  Baz Lurhmann is a flashy director.  I don’t doubt his skill for color with sparkles and glamour. No subject is glitzier than Elvis Presley.  Yet, if a biography is going to be recounted on film, it needs to be more than just a near three-hour music video.  Luhrmann seems prouder of the letter fonts and graphics that introduce another year like 1956 or another state like Tennessee as it zooms towards you from the depths of the screen.  The gloss of the photography in the movie is overly animated, lacking feeling or character arcs.

The script for Elvis seems to also adopt the approach that Milos Forman’s Amadeus took, where the puppet master/antagonist recalls the celebrity’s story.  Colonel Parker provides voiceover with a thick, German/Austrian (maybe ???), dialect for Tom Hanks to deliver.  Unlike popular opinion, I was surprisingly taken with Hanks’ portrayal.  He’s quite the villain in a disproportioned fat suit and bulbous sweat-soaked head.  The relationship between Elvis and the Colonel is nothing surprising.  We’ve seen plenty of bios where the manager swindles the fortunes of the outstanding talent.  Considering that is how it happened, I don’t mind seeing it again in Elvis.  However, much like everything else in the film, it is glossed over.  Only very late in the film do we learn that Colonel Parker is deeply indebted to the Las Vegas casinos, and he signs away a long-term Elvis obligation in lieu of repayment.  Before all of that comes into play however, while we know we can’t trust the Colonel, we also don’t know what his endgame is.  Only near the end, Luhrmann and his script writers throw in a last-minute Hail Mary to shock the viewers and uncover how the Colonel destroyed Elvis’ financial assets and betrayed his trust.  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of a relationship between the two rivals after over two hours of film.  A build up is missing.  The best way for a villain to attack a hero is to whet his appetite with trust and then use that reliability as a control device.  The script for Elvis never sets up those early moments of exposition that get the viewer, and more importantly Elvis, to trust the Colonel. 

Michelle Williams once played Marilyn Monroe in a film called My Week With Marilyn.  It’s an astonishing performance in a very shallow film.  In my review of that picture, I wrote that I wish I could see Williams play the role again in a story more worthy of what she puts on screen.  She was above that movie.  I feel the same way for Austin Butler and Tom Hanks here.  These are great actors who were not given adequate material to shine.  If only another Elvis picture could be made with them in the principal roles.

What I find ironic about Elvis is that when I first saw the film upon initial release in theatres, I felt thoroughly impressed.  While I am always more cold than hot on Baz Luhrmann’s movies, I thought maybe this was the exception.  Watching it a second time however, eight months later, I realize that much of the film I could not remember and that is because that movie doesn’t invest in memorable scenes.  It focuses much too much on flashy edit, cut aways.  What I lost from that narrative is an intimate connection to Elvis or any of the other characters. 

Even the music is not as electrifying as it is known for.  There is not enough time devoted to individual set pieces of Elvis performing numbers like Heartbreak Hotel or Jailhouse Rock, and because of the quick cuts, I’m not convinced that Austin Butler is truly crooning away in an Elvis impersonation like Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.  Austin Butler is just not offered ample opportunity to do his best Elvis performing.

As colorful as Elvis’ life was and his legacy continues to be, Baz Lurhmann is certainly a viable candidate to direct this biography.  The problem is maybe that Lurhmann needed an editor and producer who would put their foot down and tell him to try again.  Lurhmann was more concerned with showing his own kind of magic in filmmaking and reserving the story and plot devices for the closing act.  Exposition within the last thirty minutes of a movie usually never works.


By Marc S. Sanders

In early 2022, the local theatre that I volunteer at, Carrollwood Players in Tampa, Florida, will be presenting Luce by playwright Julius Onah.  I’d never heard of this dramatic play before, and I learned that Onah wrote a screenplay adaptation with J.C. Lee.  Onah directed the film. 

Watching the film ahead of seeing the stage production left me quite surprised.  It was not what I expected.  Luce is a story that begins as what I anticipated would be an examination of social or racial injustice and evolves into a suspenseful thriller that questions those arguments.  There are four main characters to ponder what they stand for.  Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is an adopted black boy from a war-torn country and now the star athlete and likely valedictorian of his high school.  Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) are his white well to do parents, and Mrs. Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is Luce’s African American history and government teacher with a fifteen-year tenure at the prestigious high school.  Over the course of the film, each character will be fleshed out with background and dimension.  Each character may also change his or her position on the main conflicts at hand, and each one of them will exercise an action of misgiving or betrayal.  So, in what seems like a perfect world of brilliant academics and success, who can we trust?

Harriet is introduced as “stern” and later confirmed by Luce and Peter as a “bitch,” but spoken humorously within the private confines of their car ride home from an evening speech event that Luce conducted at school.  Amy shames them for the characterization.  The men in her family are wrong to describe a hard-working woman in such a way, even if it is a little sarcasm among just themselves.  A day or so later, and Amy meets with Harriet because she’s disturbed by an essay that Luce wrote glorifying the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, who believed that elimination by violence is a sound societal solution to his country’s problems.  The assignment was to select a historical figure and write the paper from that figure’s perspective.  Following her review of the essay which left her uneasy, Harriet takes it upon herself to search Luce’s locker where she uncovers a bag of illegal fireworks.  Amy is shocked by Harriet’s actions and at first can not fathom Luce as a boy who would ever have a violent nature or want to cause harm.  Debates in the kitchen occur when she gives the run down to Peter.  Questioning confrontations with Luce and his parents occur as well.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Luce is such a model student.  He’s also a brilliant debater, and that makes it hard to get to the truth.  Is there any truth to get to at all however? Is there any justification to question him when no crime or damage has occurred and by all accounts, Luce did in fact meet the standards of the assignment?  Luce asks a good question as well. As a student, were his civil rights violated by Harriet when she took it upon herself to search his locker, under no one’s authority or approval?

All of these questions are presented early on in the film.  Afterwards, developing twists take place and the story adopts a thriller mentality to it.  Luce seems so kind and enviable.  Kelvin Harrison Jr. presents the character with a beautiful smile, who is well versed, polite and presentable.  Luce even steps in to calm down a fight among his peers.  He delivers gracious speeches.  He’s a brilliant model of the debate club and he’s a star on the track team.  He takes it upon himself to approach Harriet with a mea culpa to whatever misunderstanding may have occurred, but there’s also a disturbing subtext.  He volunteers to her that his favorite holiday is Independence Day because he appreciates its meaning when he considers the violent country he was rescued from…along with the celebratory fireworks that traditionally accompany the day.  Wilson never asked for this information, and yet Luce is telling her anyway.  Is he being sincere, or is he using this as a means to torment Harriet?

Amy becomes torn by these events.  Does she really know her son, that she eventually nurtured out of the fear of his original environment?  Does it make sense for Amy to hide the paper and fireworks that Harriet gave to her with trust that she’ll address these allegations with her son and husband?  Did Peter really want to adopt this boy, when he and his wife could have easily had a child on their own, thereby avoiding the challenges of raising a child of a different race, from a war-torn country?

As a white, middle class, Jewish American male, I don’t think I’m any wiser on the plights that people of other races have endured following my experience with Onah’s film and screenplay. I thought I might have been early on in the film, but then the film seems to divert to the wise mechanics of how any one of us can be sinister, either for our own satisfaction or to prove a point, or to protect a loved one, or to mask our own foolish blindness.  Onah deliberately leaves threads of his story ambiguous, and I appreciate that.  I always like to think and ponder a film or a play or book, with its characters, long after it’s over and Luce is a perfect opportunity. 

There are surprising moments in Luce.  Just when you think you have one of these four characters figured out, something happens that forces you to take two steps back and start over.  I’ll credit Onah’s story for that, but also the impeccable casting here.  Octavia Spencer is such a great actor.  She’s awarded a character here with much background that is challenging and lends to why the other players in the story have a right to question her actions.  Watts is given more material to play with than Roth.  Typically, I’d argue that mothers bear the weight of affection towards a child more than a father and so more opportunities present themselves here for Watts to turn Amy into an unsure, but loving mother. It’s ironic, but as I watching this film, I couldn’t help but parallel some of the themes with the play/film Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, which also ends with much uncertainty.  Amy certainly becomes more of a character plagued with internal doubt as the story progresses here.  Tim Roth is maybe given the least amount of dimension here, but he embodies the wishy-washy nature of not really knowing what’s true and what isn’t.  Roth portrays the guy like he doesn’t know whose side he’s on anymore, and he just wants to cut through the bullshit.  Harrison needs to become a more established actor in today’s mediums of streaming and cinema.  He’s brilliant at playing one face while keeping me guessing whether he’s playing another face as well.  By far, this was the most important role to cast in this film, and the production got the right guy for the part.  Side note: after watching the film it was interesting to see what his character’s name could potentially stand for.  Don’t read anything ahead of the film.  Check out the trivia notes on IMDb afterwards. 

You may expect to have a discussion on what Luce was trying to say.  I don’t think it bears overthinking from a societal perspective, really.  If Julius Onah were to hear me say this, or read this publication, he might be disappointed to know that.  Rather, I think it’s better to piece together how all of the surprises came to be.  Regardless, Luce is terrific dramatic entertainment with superb and nuanced performances, and heightened suspense from its toe the line direction and the entire cast.