If there is a demarcation point in the United States between what is called popular music, with standards of songs by Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Eddie Fisher, Jo Stafford and Perry Como, etc. al, and the rock and roll upheaval is the year 1955.
Certainly, as we saw with the recent release of the documentary “How They Got Over,” which I reviewed here in the May 6 Gazette, rock and roll has many parents.
The fast-tempo, guitar-influenced genre, with its 140 beats per minute and 12-bar chord structure, topped the country’s music charts with “Rock Around The Clock,” an enthusiastically catchy song by Bill Haley And The Comets, which was a moderate hit in 1954. However, it climbed to No. 1 the following year after its use on the soundtrack of the controversial 1955 juvenile delinquency film, “Blackboard Jungle”.
As Haley and his comets garnered attention, Elvis Presley went 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”. Mom”.
January 27, 1956 saw the arrival of Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” a sensation that topped various Billboard Magazine charts. From then on the Elvis train continued to roll and although Presley did not invent rock and roll – and never claimed to have – he became rock’s first superstar.
In addition to his music, Presley starred in 31 feature films from 1956 to 1969. Everyone has their favorites, but you can’t go wrong watching Elvis and the manager 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 did not sing is “Charro!”
Presley is the subject of numerous concert films and documentaries. He is also a character in dozens of films, including the biographical “Elvis” starring Kurt Russell as Presley. “Elvis And Nixon” stars Michael Shannon as the singer and Kevin Spacey as the 37th President of the United States.
The Flying Elvises, a skydiving team of Elvis impersonators, appear in “Honeymoon In Vegas” with Nicolas Cage, a genuinely devoted fan of Presley, who was married for two years to his only child, Lisa Marie.
The latest cinematic attempt to highlight the personality of the king of rock and roll is “Elvis”, which stars Austin Butler as Presley. The 159-minute, music-filled film hits theaters.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the beautiful film captures the essence of Presley and his golden life in a way that is both surprising and satisfying. The richly detailed script, which delivers over 60 characters and decades of significant 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 imagined or imagined.
This is only Luhrmann’s sixth film. He first caught the attention of Americans, particularly critics, in 1992 as the director of the delightfully exuberant “Strictly Ballroom.” He followed it up with the formidable “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 its version of “The Great Gatsby”.
Luhrmann is a visual stylist, and “Elvis” has his share of dazzling moments. On some occasions, the director edits together brief snippets of the life of Elvis, which can include stunning camera panning in the edit we watch as he moves from scene to scene – sometimes jumping from color to black and white. It may only take 30-40 seconds of screen time, but a lot of information is conveyed perfectly.
It is Luhrmann’s determined effort to tell a familiar story in a unique way and with sustained energy. His successful methods make sense. His robust technique is all about creating a mood. Mandy Walker is the cinematographer and Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond are the film’s editors.
The story 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 is excellent and he has the movements of Presley. He also understands emotional pain, such as when Elvis is called upon to suffer the arrogance and rudeness of his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who is acted out with delicious meanness by Tom Hanks. Parker was a bully bully; clearly a guy who didn’t want to lose his cash cow, especially since he theoretically gave birth to the cow. Many of these 31 films directed by Elvis were quickly produced by star vehicles with very thin stories.
Butler is also excellent when interacting with Olivia DeJonge, who is very good as Elvis’ wife, Priscilla. With a craven, rolling, dealing Parker pushing his win-the-while-you-can attitude, Elvis’ love for Priscilla suffers. The film offers deep emotional depth in its show business saga setting.
Good movies that interpret history, especially the story of a legendary character, can teach us things. “Elvis” does. It helps Butler understand his character’s struggle to succeed, as well as the demons that would later consume Presley. His public persona is that of a charming man. Butler nails it. He also walks like Elvis in a weird way. However, the film, with its thrilling soundtrack, never feels unrealistic.
“Elvis” is one of the best movies so far this year, and the first big movie of the summer. He should be heavily considered for the Oscars, with Butler topping the list.
Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at [email protected]