If there’s a point of demarcation in the US between what was called popular music, with song standards from Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Eddie Fisher, Jo Stafford, and Perry Como, et. al, and the upheaval of rock and roll, it’s the year 1955.
Certainly, as we’ve seen with the recent release of the documentary “How They Got Over,” which I reviewed here in the Gazette on May 6, rock and roll has many parents.
The guitar-influenced, fast tempo genre, with its 140 beats per minute and 12-bar chord structure, took over the country’s music charts with “Rock Around The Clock,” an enthusiastically upbeat song from Bill Haley And The Comets, which was a moderate hit in 1954. However, it soared to number one the next year after its use on the soundtrack of the controversial 1955 juvenile delinquency film, “Blackboard Jungle.”
As Haley and his Comets were drawing attention, Elvis Presley was moving up from regional hitmaker to national sensation beginning with his 1954 release of “That’s All Right,” which was a version of the 1940s blues song “That’s All Right Mama.”
January 27, 1956 saw the arrival of Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” a sensation topping various Billboard Magazine charts. From that point on, the Elvis train kept a-rollin’ and although Presley didn’t invent rock and roll – and never claimed he did – he became the first rock superstar.
In addition to his music, Presley acted in 31 feature films from 1956 to 1969. Everyone has their favorites, but you can’t go wrong watching Elvis and the warden throw a party in “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), dance with Ann- Margaret in “Viva Las Vegas (1964), or play a doctor helping Mary Tyler Moore as a nun solve the problems of an inner-city ghetto in “Change Of Habit” (1969). The only feature in which Elvis didn’t sing is “Charro!”
Presley is the subject of numerous concert films and documentaries. He’s also a character in dozens of movies, including the biographical “Elvis” starring Kurt Russell as Presley. “Elvis And Nixon” stars Michael Shannon as the singer and Kevin Spacey as the 37th US president.
The Flying Elvises, a skydiving team of Elvis impersonators, appear in “Honeymoon In Vegas” with Nicolas Cage, a genuinely devoted Presley fan, who was married for two years to his only child, Lisa Marie.
The latest cinematic attempt to highlight the persona of The King Of Rock And Roll is “Elvis,” which stars Austin Butler as Presley. The 159-minute, music-filled film is showing in theaters.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the good-looking movie captures the essence of Presley and his gilded life in ways that both surprise and satisfy. The richly detailed screenplay, which delivers more than 60 characters and decades of important events in Presley’s career, is written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner. What Luhrmann does with the script is inspiring in ways you might not have expected or imagined.
This is only Luhrmann’s sixth movie. He first came to the attention of Americans, especially reviewers, back in 1992 as the director of the delightfully exuberant “Strictly Ballroom.” He followed that up with the terrific “Romeo + Juliet,” a vigorous rock and roll version of William Shakespeare’s great romantic tragedy. The musical jukebox “Moulin Rouge” was next, and then came “Australia” and his version of “The Great Gatsby.”
Luhrmann is a visual stylist, and “Elvis” has its share of dazzling moments. On some occasions, the director edits together brief snippets of Elvis’s life, which might include an astonishing camera pan within the montage we’re watching as it cuts from scene to scene – sometimes switching from color to black and white. This might take only 30 to 40 seconds of screen time, but a lot of information is flawlessly imparted.
This is Luhrmann’s determined effort to tell a familiar story uniquely and with sustained energy. His successful methods have meaning. His robust technique is about creating a mood. Mandy Walker is the cinematographer and Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond are the film editors.
The tale of Elvis Presley is indeed a rags to riches adventure and the story has the pace of a good thriller. Actor Butler is up to the task at hand. His singing by him is excellent, and he has Presley’s moves by him. He also understands emotional pain, as when Elvis is called upon to suffer through the arrogance and rudeness of his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who is acted with delicious villainy by Tom Hanks. Parker was a bullying taskmaster; clearly a fellow who didn’t want to lose his cash cow, especially since he theoretically gave birth to the cow. A lot of those 31 movies Elvis made were quickly produced star vehicles with paper-thin stories.
Butler is also excellent when interacting with Olivia DeJonge, who is very good as Elvis’s wife Priscilla. With a craven, wheeling and dealing Parker pushing his earn-it-while-you-can attitude, Elvis’s love for Priscilla suffers. The film offers some deep emotional depth within its framework show business saga.
Good movies that interpret history, especially the history of a legendary person, can teach us things. “Elvis” does. It helps that Butler understands his character’s struggle to succeed, as well as the demons that would later consume Presley. His public persona of him is that of a charming fellow. Butler nails it. He also walks like Elvis in a way that is eerie. However, the movie, with its foot-tapping soundtrack, never feels unrealistic.
“Elvis” is one of the best movies so far this year, and the first great movie of the summer. It should be under strong consideration for Academy Awards, with Butler at the top of the list.
Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at email@example.com.