Elvis

Based on the small sample of this household, this movie is going to be divisive. The number of musical biopics in recent years may be indicative of an aging audience as it seems time for us to look at the musical heroes of our youth. Queen and Elton John are prime examples, but The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen have also had films based on their music in the last few years. Aretha and N.W.A. also got the biopic treatment. Elvis is a different animal however, he has been gone for almost half a century, and his original fans are probably not around to make up an audience for this film. The reasons for making a film like this still exist however. Elvis is the pivotal figure in the creation of modern culture in the second half of the 20th Century and his influence still reaches us well into the 21st.  

Director Baz Luhrmann has a reputation as a film innovator. He has made six feature length films and all of them have some distinctive visual qualities and a heavy use of music. “Elvis” should be the ultimate film in his catalogue if musicals are what you are looking for. The question before us is simple, does the film live up to expectations? From my point of view the answer is mostly yes. I will have a few reservations that you will get later, but let’s begin with the stuff that would justify some enthusiasm.

Elvis as a force of nature and cultural tipping point is where Luhrmann succeeds early on. Elvis did not appropriate black culture and music, he championed it. This film digs a little into those roots with a couple of effective scenes. The child version of Elvis is drawn to the gospel music of his black neighbors and that music remained with him the rest of his life. The spiritualism that possesses him is transformed into sensuality later on, in a way that Elvis himself did not at first understand. In a strong visual flashback and extended concert sequence, Luhrmann connects these two seemingly conflicting influences and shows how important they were to transforming music into a emotionally shared experience for audiences. In a longer scene, he rejects efforts to channel his singing into a safer cultural zone, and embraces his emotional roots, which happen to challenge not only a sense of sexual propriety but also racial suppression. He may have grown up in a socially segregated world, but his musical impulses ignore those divisions and his fans largely do as well. This film is not about racial justice but it is about someone who influenced attitudes about those sorts of things and he existed in that context. 

The seeming Svengali of the phenomena that was Elvis, is Colonel Tom Parker, a mysterious showman/charlatan who took over Presley’s career and guided it to incredible heights, exploited it for fantastic sums of money, and abused it for his personal benefit. The movie is structured around a seeming end of life confessional/defense by Parker of his relationship with The King. I appreciated some of the details in the story around this, and the mythmaking is also enjoyable, but I have reservations about Tom Hanks performance. The accent and at times over the top sinister smiles, are a bit dubious. The one thing that is pretty clear from a story perspective is that the relationship was complicated by admiration and loathing on both sides of the equation. The most satisfying sequence for an Elvis fan is the backdrop on the 68 Comeback Special, which Elvis used to restart his relevance in the world, in direct conflict with the final sell out that Parker was trying to manufacture. The recreation of the special is one of the many spots where Luhrmann gets close to turning this into the musical it really should be. 

It is the musical/concert scenes where the director and his acting discovery Austin Butler, manage to get the electricity that Elvis could generate on screen. When Butler is performing on stage, he really does bring Elvis to life and the sequences are well shot. It would perhaps be more entertaining if more of the songs were complete rather than composites. The sad coda of “Unchained Melody” is a good example of how a more complete musical edit could make the moments more meaningful. Luhrmann however is a visualist who needs to take advantage of the technology and control that modern film making can allow. I did think that he was more subdued on this than I expected. 

The places where the film falls down a bit are the personal moments and plot threads that should be a little more front and center. Elvis’s romance with Pricilla gets a little bit of time, but his marriage gets next to nothing. The presence of Lisa Marie is tertiary and exist only for a moment on screen. His well known generosity is never touched on. The Memphis Mafia is listed at one point, but their fealty to and love of Elvis does not come across or show the personalities of the guys. Also missing is Elvis’s playful sense of humor. 

Overall the film was very entertaining from my point of view but my daughter found it lifeless and a big disappointment. We will be talking about this more on the podcast, so if you want, come by and listen to our differences of opinion there.  

Three Film Mini Festival Everybody Wants Some/Sing Street/Elvis and Nixon

This is what happens when I am kept out of a movie theater for a month. It’s the kind of thing that happens to addicts of all kinds, when their supply is back, they OD. Fortunately, I have not yet heard of anyone dying from seeing too many films in a short amount of time. That means that instead of turning up naked on the floor of the bathroom as a corpse, you get to encounter me in a good mood with nice things to say and great films to share. Comments might be a little briefer than usual because  you don’t want to come down from your high to fast or hard.

Everybody Wants Some

We start with this Richard Linklater comedy which is billed as the emotional descendant of his classic “Dazed and Confused”.  A movie like this should be playing on 3000 screens in the summertime, not 400 in the spring. The world however has changed and a raunchy comedy with sex, drugs and Rock and Roll, is not as welcome at the cineplex as it once was. Maybe the art-house reputation of Linklater from his last film, “Boyhood” scared the marketing and distribution divisions of the studio and they decided to play it safe. With a $10 Million budget and no stars, it begs for a wide and quick release with a front loaded marketing campaign featuring the hi jinks and nudity that the younger audience would want. Treating it as an art house release (we saw it at a Laemalle Theater) with a platform release, I’d be surprised if they get their money back. It’s entertaining enough and provides the requisite laughs, but it is not going to have the word of mouth that builds it into a cult favorite like the earlier films of Linklater in this genre.

A cross between “Animal House” and “Dazed and Confused”, “Everybody Wants Some” doesn’t knock it out of the park, but it does score from second base on a long flyball to the outfield. In case you were unaware, the film focuses on the antics of a championship caliber baseball team at a Texas University in 1980. The movie is filled with wall to wall references to the times, including the changing music scenes and the college culture of the day.  The jocks occupy two adjoining houses near campus and enjoy many perks afforded star athletes on a campus like the one depicted here. The rampant sexism is played off as a symptom of the times and since there is ultimately a sweet story to go along with at least one character, it seems to be forgivable to me. Having lived through these times and been a coach on a college team debate, not anything sports related) i can say that the “in-group” mentality of the team is pretty accurately portrayed. Everyone wants to be the top dog, everyone wants to fit in, and the older members of the team, take it as the gospel truth, that the new guys don’t know anything.

I already have all the songs that appear on the sountrack, so I don’t need to rush out and get the song score for the movie,in fact, most of the music here I owned originally on vinyl. If you come from a more recent generation, just be assured that it is an accurate reflection of the musical tastes of the day.  This includes early rap, pop country, the last vestiges of disco and of course the straight forward rock catalogue of the day. The characters are familiar but they all have a shiny veneer that makes them seem fresh. The main protagonist is a decent guy for the most part, but capable of being a pig on occasion. There are locker room philosophers and pig headed bullies and sluts and “nice girls” all over the place. As an example of a culture it is a microcosm of every stereotype about jocks and drama kids you can imagine. It’s a lot of fun but not as deep ans some people who smoked from a two chambered bong want you to believe it is.

So I mentioned that I saw this at the Laemalle in Pasadena, I just want you to know how art house this theater is. The bathrooms are decorated. That’s right, there is art in the john. I liked it but I also thought it was indicative of how isolating the experience is going to be for our first movie.

You just don’t see a lot of classic film poster reproduction above the urinals these days.

Sing Street

Much more in keeping with the surroundings was the second feature of the day, another music centric film from writer-director John Carney who brought us “Once” and from a couple of years ago “Begin Again“. If the baseball college comedy we started the day out with was a combination of “Animal House” and “Dazed and Confused”, than this film is an amalgam of “The Commitments” and “Billy Elliot”. Just as the American film is set in the early eighties and features a song list that could be found on any jukebox in the States in 1980, this movie set in Dublin in 1985, features a mix of pop, new wave and rock that could have easily been played on a continuous loop on MTV. It also features some smashing songs that mimic the styles of the times and show exactly how music can be infectious and viral, especially at a creative level.

One of the things that perhaps differs my blog from other movie sites is that I have a very personal take on the experience. While I do sometimes comment on film making techniques or  performances, more than anything, I try to share my feeling for the movies that I see. My experience is informed by my personality and history. I am a sentimentalist and I did live through these times. I can see some flaws in this film. There is a too pat plot line that follows a dozen other movies. It is a coming of age story with rebellion, a seemingly hopeless romance and a “let’s put on a show” mentality. All of it will strike you as derivative. What won’t however feel that way is the cast and the songs. The young actors here don’t feel like cardboard characters. The two brothers in the film are oddly different enough from each other that they are more believable as brothers as a result. The girl is lovely but I’m not sure that the “model” tag she puts on herself works, but video vixen does. The jump to songwriting perfection comes too smoothly for the lead and his musical partner, but since the songs are so winning and perfectly cast in contrast to the latest musical style the band adopts, you can forgive that story telling misstep. I loved this movie for it’s sincerity and for it’s heart. There is a perfectly realized music video that appears in the lead’s head as he plays at a video rehearsal which matches the opening sequence in “Begin Again” for imagination and looking inside of a person’s head.

It will be fun to revisit this movie at home because then I can rewind all the bits that were incomprehensible to me due to the local vernacular and accents.  The film does not shy away from showing some of the grimmer elements of life for these kids trapped in a place that they see as hopeless. The bleakness of life and the break up of the families that form the background of the story are passing references, not the main focus of what is going on. This is the first film I can remeber seeing a disclaimer for in the credits that apologizes for the way things might have been in the past. The real Synge Street School seems to be acknowledging that it was not a very forward thinking institution in 1985. It was an odd finish to a terrific film that lifted my heart with music and the kind of passion that everyone ought to feel about something in their life. That this fish out of water romance is also about the love of two brothers is just extra cream in the coffee.I’ll be looking for these songs on-line, to add to my library,

Here is just a little taste of the joy you have in store.

Elvis & Nixon

If the first two movies from this orgy of film were music centered, the third manages to be so without featuring the actual songs of the music icon named in the title. Elvis Presley, the greatest entertainer to ever touch the stage, does not have a song of his featured in the movie bearing his name. The soundtrack of the movie is brimming with music acts from the 1970 year that the film was set, but the King is not one of them. A Elvis movie without Elvis songs is one thing, but how about an Elvis movie without a guy who looks much like Elvis?  Michael Shannon is an actor with a character face. He is not pretty in any way, certainly not in the way that the real King was. He makes up for it with personality and performance. After ten minutes you’ll stop thinking about how little he looks like Elvis, but rather how much he seems to embody the weird things that we have heard about Presley. By the way, Kevin Spacey doesn’t look much like Nixon, but he might want to brush up on his awards speech because he may very well be next years winner for Best Supporting Actor. His is more than an impression, he manages to get under the skin and show us the contradictory Nixon that has baffled his friends and opponents alike.

This film is based on the unbelievable but still true meeting between two of the most recognizable people on the planet in 1970. Such an unlikely duo just tickles the funny bone thinking about it. These may also have been two of the quirkiest people on the planet in 1970. Elvis may very well have been spaced out on some prescription meds when he decided to try to help America fight the scourge of drugs. Nixon was never a lovable teddy bear of a figure, but he comes off here as one of the more likable characters on screen this year. Nixon is a power figure, flummoxed by his inability to wield power in the presence of the King’s monomaniacal vision. Almost all of this had to be imagined because  no recording exists of what the two spoke about, but there is enough detail in the personal recollections of the parties involved who are still alive to construct a reasonable semblance of the events as they played out, at least chronologically, if not completely historical.

In case you have not guessed, this movie is a comedy. It is not a slapstick take on the delusional quest of a mythic figure to conquer the dark side of one of the most complex figures of the twentieth century. It is a comedy of manners. Two completely different worlds collide, the self important musical entertainer, used to getting what he wants because of who he was, and the shrewd political Machiavelli, who is thawed and ultimately charmed out of his natural persona to reveal a human with the same needs as the rest of us. I don’t want to dismiss the work of  Joey and Hanala Sagal, who are listed as the primary screenwriters, but having read his recent memoir about making “The Princess Bride” and listened to him at a screening/book signing, I can say that actor and co-producer of this film Cary Elwes, brought some comic perspective to the story as well. Joey also has a cameo as an Elvis impersonator in the film, so he gets to show a little of his comic flair on screen as well as on the page.

Many people can take credit for turning this odd piece of history into an amusing film of less consequence than many but with a couple of huge belly laughs. Colin Hanks, plays Egil “Bud” Krough, the aid to the President that talks him into meeting with Presley and later was a key figure in the Watergate scandal. His comic double takes and perfectly placed exclamations of the “F” word, will bring a smile to your face. Johnny Knoxville shows up as Sonny West, one of the Memphis Mafia that were pals and employees of the King. He does not have a lot of dialogue but his slack jawed expression says volumes at times. The deadpan faces of the Secret Service guys trying to screen Elvis and the fan dazzled eyes of the women working in the Narcotics Bureau and the White House, also make this movie a lot of fun.

It’s been a month since i saw a film in the theater, and that was “Batman v. Superman”, a bloated but spectacular super hero film that does everything to show how epic it is except entertain us. These three movies don’t have a tenth of the budget of that film, but each one supplied so much more pleasure that it should be embarrassing to Hollywood.