Also reviewed this week: The Black Phone and The Big Hit
Elvis (12A, 160mins)
By the time Elvis Presley died in 1977, he had become a kind of joke to many. Bloated, increasingly isolated, addicted to fast food and amphetamines, he seemed like a grim caricature of the whip thin rocker who had revolutionised popular culture back in the 1950s.
His chaotic life and early death were presented as a cautionary tale, and like all good fairy stories, it had a villain — his manager Colonel Parker.
‘The Colonel’ undoubtedly helped Elvis achieve global fame in the early stages of his career, but had subsequently milked his cash cow to death, signing him up for a dreary parade of bad movies and locking him into a Las Vegas residency that turned a rock god into a parody.
The Colonel, of course, wasn’t a colonel at all, nor a southern gentleman — he was Dries van Kuijk, a Dutch conman who reinvented his persona so successfully, he almost convinced himself.
In Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, he bosses the show from start to finish, played with a wink and a smirk by Tom Hanks, barely recognisable beneath a sea of wobbling prosthetics. It is The Colonel who narrates, from his deathbed, looking back through a haze of morphine and insisting on giving his side of the story.
In 1955, he is managing a touring carnival and representing country crooner Hank Snow when he hears a strange noise coming out of a record player.
It’s Elvis singing That’s Alright Mama, the incendiary single that will shortly put a bomb under the music industry. While the country hacks around him grimace, Parker thinks this kid might have something, especially when he finds out that he’s not black, but white.
Elvis (Austin Butler) hails from a poor and mainly African-American neighbourhood of Tupelo, Mississippi, and has grown up immersed in black culture, RnB and gospel — a plethora of influences he has subconsciously blended with country to create a new, dynamic and quintessentially American sound.
And while proper music people like Sam Philips of Sun Records hear something divine in Elvis’s early work, The Colonel hears money, and gets his claws into the Tennessee tearaway as quick as he can.
Luhrmann’s film then races pell-mell through the next 20-odd years of Presley’s brief and action-packed life.
Helen Thompson plays Gladys Presley, the powerful matriarch to whom her boy is devoted, Olivia DeJonge is Priscilla Wagner, who was just 14 when Elvis met her, but would eventually become his only wife, and there are fleeting cameos from the likes of BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Little Richard (Alton Mason) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey).
Much is made of Presley’s early connections to African-American culture, but there’s little mention of his ardent Republicanism and enthusiastic support of Richard Nixon. And while a life like his is hard to encompass, there might have been better ways of attempting it than this.
The Luhrmann style is well known — all jump edits and short attention span, his camera racing from scene to scene and barely resting for a moment on anything. There are nice moments, like that scene where That’s Alright Mama is first heard, or a section where we see Elvis, a great arranger, gearing up his band for those legendary early Vegas shows.
But the film’s attitude to Presley’s music is perplexing — hardly a single song is played in full and those we do hear are thrown away in gimmicky overlays. Butler is pretty good as the young and swaggering Presley, but every time we start to get a sense of Elvis, The Colonel waddles out in front of him, obscuring our view.
The decision to give Parker what is effectively equal billing with Presley is problematic and, as a result, we wallow in the confused reflections of a dying shyster, and only skirt the life and person of a great artist.
It’s a missed opportunity, and a relatively straightforward biopic, like say Walk The Line, would have worked much better. Perhaps some kind soul will make one.
Rating: Two stars
The Black Phone (16, 102mins)
A horror film with half a brain, Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone is adapted from a short story by Joe Hill and set in small-town Denver in 1978, where among the little league games and dodgy flares, something is amiss.
As Finney (Mason Thames) walks home from school with his little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), they pass posters of missing children. Finney knew some of them and is about to become one himself as a serial murderer known as ‘The Grabber’ snatches him off the street.
Finney comes to in a soundproof basement, where he is visited occasionally by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), who is simultaneously unhinged and softly spoken, but leaves the boy in no doubt as to what will happen next.
On the wall, an old disconnected black phone rings eerily in the night, and when Finney answers, he can hear the voices of The Grabber’s victims, who urge him to escape.
The Black Phone could easily have been excessively nasty but isn’t, and has the slightly surreal quality of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, though it resolves itself with unseemly haste.
Rating: Three stars
The Big Hit (15A, 105mins)
So unlikely, it has to be based on a true story, Emmanuel Courcol’s comic drama The Big Hit stars Kad Merad as Étienne, a frequently unemployed actor who takes a job running a drama workshop in a French prison.
Surprised by the raw talent he finds there, he encourages them to rehearse Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting For Godot. “Some bored guys waiting around for someone who never comes,” he tells them. “Sounds familiar, no?” The play speaks to the prisoners, so much so that Étienne then has the bright idea of taking the show on tour.
The unlikely adventure that follows will take he and his band of player villains through the provinces and all the way to the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris, where nasty surprises await.
The Big Hit wears its heart on its sleeve and even though its story is inspired by a real prison production of Waiting For Godot in Sweden, it feels slightly contrived. It’s warm-hearted though and has its moments. Merad is excellent as Étienne, whose good intentions are slightly compromised by the fact that he craves the limelight himself.
Rating: Three stars