Elvis: Great Performance, Same Old Story

Elvis (2022)

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Warner Brothers pictures, 159 minutes, PG13






American culture circulates the word generation to stamp everyone born during a particular time period as cookies from the same mold. A recent screening of Elvis reminded of the inaccuracy of this. Elvis Presley meant nothing to me. I was an infant when he debuted, in elementary school when he made his first comeback, and was musically weaned on acid rock and protest music. I heard his songs on the radio, but wanted nothing to do with a guy who idolized Richard Nixon, then became a bloated has-been in Vegas, a place I've never desired to visit.


Elvis made scads of money because so many people do worship Elvis and flock to Graceland with religious-like fervor. As biopics generally go, this one traces its subject from boyhood poverty to stardom and tragic demise. At heart, it's about the relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler) and his Svengali-like manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Elvis was the headliner, but it was Parker who made him more than a white trash rockabilly weirdo who shocked white folks in Memphis by hanging out with black musicians–B.B. King, Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton–dressing oddly, and gyrating his hips and pelvis in “lewd” ways.


Parker tried to clean up Elvis, first by taking him on tour with Hank Snow (David Wenham) and then trying to package him as family entertainment. As most people know, he wasn't entirely successful in the latter effort, so Parker turned from cajoler to control freak to maximize the monetization of the “King of Rock ‘n Roll.”


Other aspects of the Elvis saga are on display–his stint in the army (that, or go to jail), his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJong), the compliance of his father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) in Parker's plans, and Elvis’s downward drug spiral. All of this is aimed at presenting Elvis as a fallen demigod.


Insofar as the historical record goes, it's a whitewash job that makes Elvis into an innocent victim. With some justification, Parker wears the black hat; he was a fraud, a con man, a problem gambler, and a schemer who was always one step ahead of Elvis. That said, I just don't buy the idea that a personality and ego as big as that of Elvis was passive in all of this. It denies Presley’s agency.


This is a Baz Luhrmann film, so you know the production values are high, though Elvis is certainly no Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann tries to walk the borders between gauzy and gaudy, but the second is hard to do because Elvis was already over the top. How could one even make a parody of Graceland? At times, it felt as if Luhrmann was just slapping some lipstick and ruffled shirts on Elvis, which is akin to adding a few more sparkles to Liberace’s jacket.


The good news is that Butler was spectacular. He did his own singing in one of the best Presley imitations ever, though he doesn't look that much like his subject. He plays the role of the caged artist with great aplomb. Tom Hanks, though, polarized audiences as the halt-of-speech Parker. I don’t how the real Parker spoke, so I leave it to you to determine if Hanks butchered the role, played according to a flawed script, or nailed Parker's patter.


The film was overly long, an ongoing problem with biopics that give childhood-to-grave coverage. A bigger problem: Most biopics dealing with musicians who die “young” are exactly the same. They follow the story arc of Joseph Campbell's “hero's journey,” but instead of a metaphorical return “home,” the hero dies. If we replace Elvis, change the songs and costumes, and alter some details (race, gender, nationality) it's the same thing we've seen with Jim Morrison (The Doors), Amy Winehouse (Amy), Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody), Charlie Parker (Bird), Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy), Billie Holiday (Lady Sings the Blues), and … the beat has gone on and on. I'm sure if one of the three stalled Janis Joplin films finally gets greenlighted, it will be the same thing.


Am I being callous? I admit Elvis wasn’t my idol. He could sing–though his repertoire didn't evolve much–but I acknowledge his importance in the evolution of rock music. Yet, had Butler not been so good, aside from Luhrmann's carnival-like touches, Elvis would have bored me. I’m among those who think it's time to put biopics out to pasture.


Rob Weir


David Maraniss New Biography of Jim Thorpe


By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster, 568 pages (plus end material)



When Jim Thorpe won the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, King Gustav V dubbed him “the greatest athlete in the world.” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss focuses on Thorpe in Path Lit by Lightning. He doesn't break new ground, but Maraniss excels at locating Thorpe in history and adds tasty tidbits. (Who knew that poet Marianne Moore once taught at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School?)


If you don't know much about sports or have only seen the problematic film Jim Thorpe–All- American, Thorpe was a magnificent athlete, but a flawed human being. He was born in Oklahoma, was of Sac and Fox blood, and his Native name meant “Bright Path,” hence the book’s title. His year of birth is a matter of dispute but in 1907, he left Oklahoma and was sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where he gained attention by cleared a 5’9” high jump in his street clothing as he chanced upon a practice conducted by Glenn “Pop” Warner. Thorpe was a lousy-to-indifferent student, but excelled at track, baseball, basketball, and the disreputable sport of his day: football.


Many Native youngsters were given opportunities, but 186 died in Carlisle. It bore more resemblance to a military academy than a private school. Deprivation and racism were rampant; its philosophy was summed by Superintendent Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Warner was a legendary coach, but he too was a confirmed believer in Anglo-Saxon superiority and threw Thorpe under the metaphorical bus when his gold medals were revoked because he was (barely) paid for playing minor league baseball as a summer job. Thorpe spent the rest of his life seeking restoration of his gold medals, often locking horns with I. O. C. head Avery Brundage, whose character was deeply assailable. Not coincidentally, Brundage was pulverized in a football match against Thorpe in which Carlisle defeated Illinois. Carlisle routinely defeated colleges such as Harvard, Michigan, and Notre Dame. Maraniss spotlights other stellar athletes at Carlisle, including Lewis Tewanimo and Pete Calac.


Thorpe ran afoul of Olympic “rules,” but it’s accurate to note that many sports had loose standards. He played football for Carlisle in 1907-08 and again in 1911-12, but how old was he? Today’s fans would not have recognized football. Touchdowns were worth five points, most extra points and field goals were drop kicks, equipment was primitive, forward passes were rare, now-banned formations were routine, participants played both offense and defense, and so many players died that President Theodore Roosevelt nearly banned the sport. Thorpe was said to punt the less-aerodynamic football over 80 yards, which seems unlikely, though Maraniss repeats the legend.


The 6’1” 202-pound Thorpe tried pro baseball between 1913-1919, mostly with the New York Giants. Manager John McGraw wasn't impressed, Thorpe’s career numbers were modest, and though Thorpe was fast and powerful, he had  trouble hitting a curveball. He did better at pro football. In 1915, he signed with the Canton Bulldogs in a league that became the NFL in 1920. Between 1921-23, he suited up for the Oorang Indians. Not many know that there was an NFL franchise in LaRue, Ohio made-up of Native Americans. In all, Thorpe appeared in 58 NFL games. After 1928, he coached, played whatever sport he could, and made his last on-field football appearance when he was at least 46 years old.


Alas, it was hard to make a living at pro sports during his day. Thorpe was often broke and performed manual labor during the 1930s depression. Numerous patrons secured work for him, but Thorpe was not a reliable employee, moved often, and perceived numerous jobs as beneath him. He even appeared in 70 Hollywood films, but almost always as a day-wage extra.


Thorpe struggled with alcohol, fathered eight children to whom he was mostly a stranger, and exhausted the patience of two younger wives who divorced him. (His daughter Grace became a Native American activist.) His third wife, Patsy Askew, organized Thorpe, though some saw her as a gold-digger. When Thorpe died in 1953, instead of interring him in Oklahoma, Carlisle, or Southern California, she struck a deal with Mauch Creek, Pennsylvania, a place where Thorpe's cleats never trod. The town changed its name to Jim Thorpe and that’s where he lies.


Moraniss highlights the racism and sports rawness of Thorpe’s days. His Thorpe is a hero, but a nuanced victim who was both wronged and suffered from self-inflicted wounds.


Rob Weir


Playtime a Jacques Tati Masterpiece


Directed by Jacques Tati

Janus Films, 124 minutes, Not-rated

In English and French (with subtitles)




Though he made only six full-length films in his lifetime, many film aficionados consider Jacques Tati (1907-82 ) one of Europe's greatest directors. That might be objectively true, but you need to appreciate droll humor, languid pacing, and surrealism for full impact.


Playtime is often viewed as his very best picture and many rank it among the top 50 greatest comedies ever made. If you are patient, you will find a sharp critique of pretense, consumerism, and manufactured desire. Tati was a mime in his youth, but don't hold that against him. His character, Monsieur Hulot, is a nattier version of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp in that he is the sort of guy who stumbles into weird circumstances but manages to land on his feet. He's also like Chaplin in that Hulot doesn't say much, so don't worry that this is a French film. There's more silence and English than French.


Playtime was made in 1967, a cultural moment in which post-World War II France had shaken off the blues of combat devastation, post-colonialism, and economic dislocation. Things are shiny and new in Paris, and some of its trendoids are anxious to show off its modern face and gadgets. Hulot arrives in Paris along with hordes of tourists, including some stereotypical “ugly Americans,” as showy, opinionated, and culturally ignorant US travelers used to be called. (It wasn't yet a multicultural world, but 1967 was on the cusp of many changes.)


Hulot is supposed to see Monsieur Giffard (Georges Montant), but we are never quite sure why. (Nor do we know why the film opens in what might be a medical clinic populated by people we will never see again.) Just getting through the front door involves mad scientist button-pushing that only places Hulot inside a glass cube with perplexing furniture. He eventually enters a Dilbert-cube maze, spots Giffard,  but never finds him. (Those who have seen Tati’s Mon Oncle know that Tati often took pot shots at International style architecture.)


Hulot ends up at a trade exposition where all manner of “innovations” are for sale, such as brooms with headlights, soundproof doors, and things Rube Goldberg might have cooked up. Visitors are thrilled by all of this, though one American, Barbara (Barbara Dennek), wants to see more than the Eiffel Tower reflected in a glass door!


Tati and cinematographers Jean Badal and André took chances in that most of the film is shot at street level. You don't need any fancy academic theories to see that Tati is lampooning the sterility of modern life. The shots of people living in street-facing glass apartments echoes the homogeneity of the offices and hotels seen earlier. Why would anyone wish to live in such places? Conformity, my dears! Note also what Tati does with cars and men in suits. Hulot gets waylaid in various ways, but eventually ends up at the Royal Garden.Up to this point, Playtime is so deliberate you might think it boring.


Things enliven at the Royal Garden in ways analogous to the future humor of Jean-Pierre Junot (Delicatessen, Amelie.) The spot is the hottest new nightclub in Paris, even though it hasn't even opened­­­­­–mostly because it's not actually finished. Management rush matters given the number of people in town with lots of money in their pockets. It’s not hard to see what Tati is driving at here. The scenes inside the club are hysterical. Barbara is there, as is a loudmouth cigar-chomping Yank (Billy Kearns) with designs on claiming the best table and procuring a big steak. No one wants the turbot, the featured dish from a kitchen that’s a construction zone. Early 1960s decorum, fancy threads, high heels, and big hair dominate, but what does it tell you that few are having fun until  things literally fall apart? Call it spontaneity versus sterility, capped the next morning with breakfast for the survivors at the drug store across the street, and a Chaplinesque moment between Hulot and Barbara. Even then the carnival isn't quite over.


One reviewer called the nightclub scene akin to a Bruegel painting and he wasn't wrong, though Tati’s canvas comes with naff music scored by James Campbell. Note allusions to change on the horizon and before you consider the entire film a snapshot from yesteryear, try switching out a few designs, desires, trends, and gadgets. Tell me where you land.


Rob Weir