There is a pivotal scene in director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis in which Elvis (Austin Butler) and his pelvis twitch on stage for the first time, presenting to the world what his bandmates euphemistically call the “wiggle”.
The thrust — both musical and anatomical — at his female audience and their increasingly demented reactions are supposed to establish why Elvis Presley became an icon of sex and swagger. With bedroom eyes, he wiggled irreverently between a masculine evocation of sex and a feminine presentation of the body. With his obvious whiteness, he became an in-betweener as he gravitated towards black music, which inspired him and scandalised his listeners (“A White Boy With Black Hips,” a newspaper headline read).
The narrator of Elvis is the singer’s notorious (and diabolical) manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who gruffly takes stock of the situation and says Elvis was “giving the audience feelings they weren’t sure they should have.”
But which audience?
Why aren’t we, the spectators watching Elvis in the present-day cinemas, feeling what we should not feel, what fans of Elvis felt in the past? Why are we so removed from the sexual punch of Elvis and his pelvis? The film, directed by a man, narrated by another, performed by another, is certainly trying to invoke the spirit of the woman’s desire for him. (Though let it not be said Luhrmann forgot the fags. For instance, in one scene, he shows a teen boy’s drooling rapture at watching Elvis, his first interface with desire of such wringing intensity.)
Luhrmann shows the women in Elvis’s audience respond as though they were submitting to both the pain and pleasure of sex, but as almost a caricature. There is also something queer about Elvis, which Luhrmann brings to the fore — with men often commenting about his smoky eye makeup, his pompadour with a ringlet of hair curled onto his forehead, “Get a haircut, buttercup”. In an interview with New York Times, Luhrmann notes, “Elvis was fluid before fluid was invented. He was always incredibly masculine, but he was experimenting with makeup and hair color in high school, and he liked to mix lace crop tops tied at the waist and pink bolero jackets with pleated box trousers and pink socks.” This is the kind of queerness that didn’t sap at his masculine — not macho — appeal.
The relationship that Elvis the performer had with his audiences was intimate, but Luhrmann’s film always floats at an arm’s distance from us in the cinema
Yet despite all this, Elvis, as Luhrmann imagines him, doesn’t arouse, titillate or erotically charge us, the audience at the cinema.
This is a travesty because Elvis is sex. The president of Sun Records, where he first sold his records said, “He has sex personality. His appeal is mainly physical and it would be a mistake to clean up his act.” Many directors have tried to evoke this personality through the medium of cinema. Director Eugene Jarecki, for example, used the widescreen cinemascope format in his documentary The King to depict the largesse of Presley’s looming spirit.
Luhrmann’s reimagining of Elvis is characterised by what critic Richard Brody calls his “cinematic aggression”. It’s palpable right from the Warner Bros title card, which Luhrmann shows plugged with rhinestones and glitter. This aggression, this desire to pummel a scene with extravagance and drama, is what makes Luhrmann’s films recognisable within a beat. At the same time, the stylised rehearsed gestures prevent any scene from stinging us with the shock that they should in order to establish a visceral, emotional connection with an audience.
The relationship that Elvis the performer had with his audiences was intimate, but Luhrmann’s film always floats at an arm’s distance from us in the cinema — not just because it is staged at a pitch several notches higher than the one most of us inhabit in our daily lives, but also because it chooses artistry over an emotional connection and sexual ardour.
Arguably, this is an old problem for Luhrmann. Even in Moulin Rouge, which the New York Times critic called “italicized rather than tumescent” with a “frenetic innocence that seems almost asexual”, the sex is played for drama or humour or both, leaving no crack from which eros can tumble forth. The Great Gatsby, a story full of the promise of forbidden love, longing, and seething, comes across as decorously staged, rather than the messy tale of lovers whipped by time and circumstance. Even the climactic dance of Strictly Ballroom has the lithe beauty of a dance film, without the intensity of two lovers sculpting air, arm in arm.
Look back at Luhrmann’s filmography — The Great Gatsby, Romeo And Juliet — and there is no fidelity to the ur-text he adapts. Instead, the text is reimagined to convey a sense of spectacular, opulent drama. Even the ad he directed in 2004 for the fragrance CHANEL N°5, starring Nicole Kidman and costing around $33 million — the most expensive ad made — sold opulent drama and pushed Chanel’s logo to the periphery. The mirrored, tangled Cs became a mere prop in the background.
Luhrmann’s polished drama is often produced at the expense of something raw. Clogged with style and motion, uninspired by its characters, besotted with its world, obsessive over its details, Luhrmann’s orgiastic maximalist movies have the quality of synthetic awe, of shattered glass reflecting harsh light. And with a character like Elvis, the sheen of perfection and the film’s extravagant pageantry drowns the protagonist’s pathos. Elvis is reduced to a glittering, dazzling but curiously flat icon, crafted in the past by the Colonel and in the present, by Baz Luhrmann.