(Baz Luhrmann, USA/Australia, 2022)


Elvis and Lola


Don Juan gives way to P.T. Barnum, the art of pleasing gives way to a profound critique of the alienation to which an artist is bound, and nostalgic exaltation gives way to life facing the agony of death. All representation carries within itself the premise of agony: that is among the lessons of this remarkable film.

– Claude Beylie, “Lola from Stake to Pedestal”, L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma, no. 88 (January 1969), p. 10


We might imagine we are seeing The Scarlet Empress [Josef von Sternberg, 1934] as revised and corrected by Ziegfeld Follies [Vincente Minnelli, George Sidney et al, 1945] – and it’s no mere coincidence that I cite here two of the most misunderstood films in cinema.

– Robert Benayoun, first-release review of Lola Montès in Demain (magazine supporting Algerian independence), January 1956


In 2010, I found myself sitting in front of a microphone and a screen, recording an audio commentary for the Australian DVD release of Max Ophüls’ great Lola Montès (1955). Spontaneously, as the remarkable opening sequence unfolded – a spellbinding introduction to its central, grotesque circus setting – I was moved to exclaim: “If Baz Luhrmann believes that he is making spectacular, profound films about the world of show business, then he should watch Lola Montés!”


Did Luhrmann listen in to that optional commentary track and take heed of my advice? I wonder, because his Elvis – the most interesting film in his career so far – entertains some extraordinary affinities with Ophüls’ masterpiece. (Note: In all that follows, I am not equating the two films at the level of quality: Ophüls is a 5-star case!) History records an uncanny, subterranean justification for this linkage: another Ophüls classic, Letter from an Unknown Woman [1948], was among The King’s favourite movies! After all, Elvis opens in the sordid world of a carnival, where Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) learns his business tricks. (On this level, there’s a curious convergence between Elvis and Guillermo Del Toro’s overblown remake of Nightmare Alley [2021]. ‘Carny’ grotesquerie is back, and it’s all the rage! – even if nobody can quite pull it off the way Sternberg did in The Devil is a Woman [1935].)


I am very far from being an unconditional fan of Luhrmann’s work, whether for stage, screen, mass events or TV. As might be expected, he is up to his old myth-spinning, ‘you gotta have a dream!’ ways in Elvis (the interminable end-credits have a bit too much razzle-dazzle of this sort, even for me). ‘Social critique’ is not really Baz’s thing – whereas Max O., in his final years (and very surprisingly to some viewers), came on strong with an esprit critique. Style-wise, especially since his awful version of The Great Gatsby (2013) – but, really, since his first feature, Strictly Ballroom (1992) – Luhrmann puts it all in overdrive from the first frame: do we ever hear even one entire song by Elvis (Austin Butler) from start to end? Certainly not without some frantic cross-cutting counterpoints (within scenes, between scenes) to juice the stew. One of the worst minestrone-sequences of this sort is the obligatory ‘Altamont End of the ‘60s’ mash-up.


Up to this point in my argument, it’s all par for the Luhrmannian course – and a long way, indeed, from the monolith that André Bazin (Le Parisien Libéré, December 1955) praised for daring to be, “on the most conventional subject and in production conditions that would normally impose the worst academicism”, an “avant-garde film”.


The guiding idea of Elvis is simple, and declared completely on its surface (Baz is not one for ‘subtext’; he prefers to hammer home the points through repetition and underlining, relentlessly, like with the Vegas contract on a crumpled piece of paper shown over and over). The thesis is this: Elvis’ deepest soul connection is to black music, gospel and rhythm’n’blues. Becoming the vehicle or medium for that type of music is the only thing that fulfils him and makes him happy. One palpably feels Luhrmann’s eagerness to salvage the one energetic element – immersion in black musical culture – that worked in his otherwise dreary and disappointing series The Get Down (2016).


There is a faintly legible split between Sacred and Profane in Elvis: black soul is full of lively, communal eroticism; but the thrill that the Colonel aims to give the mass audience (mainly teenage women) is, for each individual member of that crowd, secret and shameful, tied to the unknowing orgasm of auto-erotic ‘mania’. (Cue a double bill with Beatlemania depicted as sheer, masturbatory joy in Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand [1978].) Or: sexual titillation as freak show, tied once again to the grimy circus. A ‘snow’ job, as the Colonel calls it maybe 237 times in the movie.


Everything else in Elvis’ life, as presented here, is mere illusion, alienation, manipulation, driven overwork – not to mention the booster medication provided by the ever-handy ‘Dr Feelgood’ (whose real name was Max Jacobson). A spooky forward-reference to the rise of The Jackson 5 in the early ‘70s triggers our knowledge of the tragic cycle that will repeat itself with Michael Jackson, Lisa Marie Presley and Neverland, Jacko’s equivalent to Graceland (the initial establishment of which is oddly flown past in Elvis).


The film skirts around and evades a great deal of Elvis’ shadowy but well-documented life. There has been understandable wailing and moaning against the depiction of a ‘woke’ Elvis: not only the eternal champion of black American music (grand buddies with B.B. King, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr), but also standing up for civil rights and other leftist causes in the stirring finale of his 1968 TV comeback special! Come again? The star’s later tarrying with Richard Nixon, and sundry other ideological oddities, are quietly edged out of the mosaic. Gun mania makes only a fleeting experience; and the ‘Memphis Mafia’ crew are basically just a bunch of down-home guys hanging around the edges of the frame.


Even the tawdry, doped-out sexual assignations of his later days (check Cybill Shepherd’s memoir Cybill Disobedience [2000] for the typical tale of a close but not satisfying encounter with The King) gets little play here: intriguingly, and flipping the melodramatic/psychosexual switch without any evident degree of control, it’s Elvis’ scenes with his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) that are filmed like erotic-romantic clinches – while pale Dad Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) forever flops around, ineffectually and impotently, in the background. Elvis even mopes at the tresses of Mom’s wardrobe the moment she has departed this earth! We are entering overheated Oliver Stone territory (Nixon, no less!) here. [2023 Postscript: I was unaware, when writing this review, of the early '90s claim by Vernon Presley's second wife, Dee (1925-2013), that Elvis slept with his Mom for years, sex included. Luhrmann may well be alluding to this controversy.]


But none of that is where the interest-quotient of the film lies – for that, we need to get back to the Long Tail of Ophüls and Lola Montès. One of the signatures of Baz Luhrmann is a certain, wildly and proudly anachronistic combination of popular musics (the same device is sometimes extended to production design, especially in Moulin Rouge [2001]). Some of Elvis’ ‘standards’ are rendered as ghostly echoes or whispers of long-lost refrains on the digital audio wind (“Love Me Tender”, etc.); suddenly, in the same mix, we are being pelted with the voice of a black rapper letting us know what it’s really like to be “in the ghetto”, or whatever. This has constituted Luhrmann’s grand-slam move since Romeo + Juliet (1996), taken to its sorry extreme in the musical stylings of The Bryan Ferry Orchestra in Gatsby.


But hold up: whether you love or loathe this layered Luhrmannian sound, it truly connects to something in the Ophüls legacy. In a brilliant 1968 essay titled “Theatre, Cinema, Audience”, the German critic Frieda Grafe (1934-2002) proposed the following understanding and appreciation of the Master’s work.


Ophüls’ films are historical films – not because they set out to reconstruct the past (this is precisely what they do not do), but in that they mediate between historical periods. In Lola Montès it is not only the relationship between the present and the past of the characters that is fluid, but even the past in which Ophüls’ films appear to be set is open to the present of the audience.


Open to the present of the audience: recall that when Ophüls made his testament to Lola, he cited then-contemporary cases of performers, including Judy Garland, as his inspiration and concern: stars eaten up and spat out by the industrial machine of show/snow business, pressed to literally perform in states of extreme physical pain. If Ophüls had been alive and making that film only a few years later, Presley – or any huge pop star celebrity – might also have entered his imagination. “In so far as theatre turns into circus”, wrote Grafe, “it points forward to the future of show business”. And something like this – not as pitiless, it’s true, and with some handy escape-hatches, but nonetheless – is going on in Elvis.


Luhrmann has been roundly criticised for choosing to relate the life story of Elvis indirectly, through the Colonel’s very particular – indeed, warped – perceptions. I defend the decision, because it generates two critical themes.


The first is that – just as with Lola (Martine Carol) – we are never ‘inside’ Elvis: his life is conjured as a dizzy succession of postcards, movie and TV clips, media myths, popular stereotypes and clichés. Even the ultimate smash-cut to the real Elvis, in concert footage from near the end of his life, looks somehow unreal and untrustworthy! Like many films in the wake of Orson WellesCitizen Kane (1941) – and recall how Claude Beylie, on the 1969 re-release and (partial) reconstruction of Lola Montès, hailed it as “alongside The Rules of the Game [Jean Renoir, 1939] and Citizen Kane, the third and decisive step of modern cinema” – Elvis therefore has no Self: he is only ever the reflection of how others see and project him.


Luhrmann – with a determination that makes me suspect he wants to become the next Bob Fosse (he lists Star 80 [1983] among his all-time faves) – goes all the way with this theme. His Elvis is a weird and often frankly garish succession of masks. One soon thinks – heretically, given his place in popular music history – that, lacking a self and all, Elvis is truly not a very interesting guy to examine. Even recurring glimpses of ‘lonely boy Elvis’, which by rights should be touching, look like a studied pose. And yes, there is a scene of Elvis distorted and multiplied in funhouse mirrors! (A Hell from which the Colonel provides an exit … ) A jarring juxtaposition wrenches us away from a single, fleeting, charming scene of closed-door intimacy between Elvis and Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) to Parker, once more, in bullish charge of the narration. And what he immediately evokes (in one of many tricky, morphing, quasi-3D, multi-screen montages that resemble nothing so much as Peter Greenaway’s ghastly Eisenstein in Guanajuato [2015]) is his success in turning the couple’s marriage into a (very bad) “Hollywood movie”, writ large in global media.


Technology is a running concern, and almost fetishistically so, in Elvis (as it was, more cannily, in Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus [2002]): from Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio to the “first satellite concert”, via every kind of microphone known to humankind, Luhrmann takes the hums, clicks and vibrations of this audio apparatus and frequently transfers them to the expressionistic level of psycho-acoustic sound design. (As in many films about music-making, the more pragmatic, material detail of composing, rehearsing, arranging and so on is, on the other hand, unfussily elided: standing in for all that is a scene in which Elvis himself ‘conducts’ and sets the parts for his vast back-up band right there on the spot!)


The second major theme is even more daring – and more Ophülsian. Parker is in exactly the same place, narratively, as the ominous Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) in Lola Montès. He guides the entire biographical show – and he owns the star. It’s his currency, his ‘merchandise’ (both films stress the hideous extremes of Lola/Elvis posters, board games, mugs, cigars … ). In Elvis, almost as much as in Lola Montès, money changes, and exchanges, everything: not even saintly Sam Phillips is adverse to a generous buy-out deal on his deeply authentic, homespun talent pool.


Ultimately, Parker is entrusted with the sacred role of being both substitute mother (she’s dead) and substitute father (he’s emotionally absent) to poor, little, lost Elvis. Parker not only mightily fails that mission, but even – like the Ringmaster – endangers Elvis’ life by forcing him to perform night after night in Las Vegas. (The fact of Parker’s secret non-citizen status and his enormous gambling debts determining all decisions to keep Elvis touring inside the USA, and eventually imprisoned in one hotel/casino nightclub spot, was a revelation to me, at least.)


Lola Montès ends with a long take that – even if the medium of cinema were to disappear tomorrow – will remain enshrined in the collective memory of cinephiles. Lola is veritably imprisoned in a cage, and people line up – first we see five or six but, as the camera cranes back, we see hundreds, all male – to pay a dollar and kiss her outstretched hands. It is, unambiguously, an indictment of the audience of consumers – in a word, us. “I love people en masse as a spectacle”, Ophüls declared (to Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut) shortly before his death, “but not as spectators. If I had the resources I would make a film with twenty-thousand actors and show it in a tiny cinema”: probably not a sentiment that Baz exactly shares.


Luhrmann does not possess the steel nerve to match that finale of Lola Montès – he has to wind up with a salute, however strained and implausible, to the King’s indomitable spirit, voice and soul – but he comes close. As the disgraced Colonel, in voice-over, reviews the theories as to why Elvis died and who was to blame, he settles on an intriguing hypothesis: he was killed by “his love for you”.


Suddenly, in this moment, the film addresses us directly … and accuses us of murder. Max Ophüls saw himself, Grafe assures us, as “ a man of the circus” – and thereby harshly and personally implicated in the system he excoriates with such grand fury in Lola Montès. Does Baz Luhrmann see his own, dark reflection as entrepreneur and metteur en scène in Colonel Tom Parker, I wonder?

© Adrian Martin August 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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