Elvis (12A, 159 mins)
Verdict: A remarkable life, all shaken up
George Michael: Freedom Uncut (15.87 minutes)
Verdict: Vanity Exercise
Which music biopic is your number 1, the top of your own chart? There have been quite a few in the past 20 years, with the life stories of the likes of Elton John, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and David Bowie.
So it was only a matter of time before Elvis Presley joined the party. After all, he is the most dazzling superstar of the bunch, measured in rhinestones alone. Director Baz Luhrmann must have thought: it’s now or never. If he didn’t do it, someone else would.
Overall, I’m glad it’s him. If, like me, you much preferred the playful Elton John biopic Rocketman (2019) over Freddie Mercury and Queen’s more conventionally told tale, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), then you might appreciate Luhrmann’s excesses. . . the tricky editing, the split screens, the slow-mo, the animated sequences.
It’s not a trip like the photo Moulin Rouge! by Luhrmann from 2001, but it is never less than stimulating to watch, as much a spectacle as a story. Elvis’s life, all shaken up.
Former Disney Channel favorite Austin Butler takes on the lofty title role, with Tom Hanks as his overbearing manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
It’s rare for Hanks to play a character who plays practically without virtue, so it might help that he’s prosthetic almost beyond recognition under a thick suit, with acres of wiggly jaws and an elongated nose, like a corpulent version of Chitty Chitty’s sinister Child Catcher Bang Bang. In short, Hanks really seems to have left the building.
Those who are not aware that Colonel Tom was actually born as Andreas van Kuijk in the Netherlands will be astonished by his curious accent, as only indirect references are made to Parker’s background and his illegal arrival in the US.
It’s rare for Hanks to play a character who plays practically without virtue, so it might help that he’s prosthetic almost beyond recognition under a thick suit, with acres of wiggly jaws and an elongated nose.
But then he also acts as the narrator of the film, and why would he emphasize his own strangeness? Instead, at the outset, he mockingly tells us that “there are some who call me the villain of this here story.” It is completely untrue, he adds, that his relentless demands helped to finish off his famous protégé, who died in 1977 at the age of 42. “I didn’t kill him,” he says. “I made Elvis Presley.”
Luhrmann is not known for his brevity in filmmaking, so over two and a half hours we draw our own conclusions. And frankly, Parker comes across as a brilliant entrepreneur with an eye for the greatest opportunity.
But the movie’s message is that no one but Elvis has made Elvis, how much he wallows in the influences of black artists like Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Conveniently, even if he resembles the young John Travolta more than the young Elvis Presley, Butler puts on a truly virtuoso performance that is much more than an imitation.
I first saw it at the Cannes Film Festival last month, where it received the endorsement of Riley Keough, who was there as a director herself, but is also Elvis’ granddaughter.
Classic movie on TV
When it came out, no one expected it to become a classic. Still, Michael Curtiz’s Oscar winner is arguably the all-time classic.
Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, When Time Goes By. . . cinematic heaven.
Saturday, BBC2, 13:20
As she and the rest of us well know, there are a thousand nightclub Elvises who can reproduce the famous lip curl. Wisely, Butler doesn’t try, away from caricature. But he has the voice and the moves, nailing the best scene in the picture, when Elvis gives his first live performance, in 1954, and the girls in the audience begin to swoon. “It is,” recalls former fairground peddler Colonel Tom, “the biggest carnival attraction I’ve ever seen.”
Elvis’ effect on them was like that of a charismatic young evangelical preacher, and Luhrmann gives us a glimpse of another of his influences, going back to 1947 to show us a wide-eyed child, in the Mississippi boondocks, watching a religious revival meeting.
But the main focus of the film is the period between the rise of the great man and his sad demise; from those early shoots at the Sun Studio in Memphis and moving his beloved mother and family to the nearby Graceland mansion (scenes with striking echoes of The Beverly Hillbillies), to making movies, going into the military, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge ) meet and the final , overweight, unhappy Vegas years.
Many of us already know the story, but this provides a vivid memory.
“A modern day Elvis,” Liam Gallagher says of George Michael’s star: Freedom Uncut, but he means in life, not death. This is the autobiographical documentary the singer was working on just before he died, and he brought in many of his famous friends to make fawning observations. The irony, of course, is that his sad death, aged just 53, made Gallagher’s questionable Elvis comparison valid.
Fans of George Michael will enjoy this movie, but the rest of us can’t get too excited. Yes, there are some great clips from Wham!’s heyday, and he shares some candid thoughts on fame, heartache and depression, but in reality this is a vanity exercise made even more poignant by his death on Christmas Day 2016, but not more interesting.
As for those celebrities, do we really need to hear what James Corden and Ricky Gervais think of their friend George? Mind you, there is a memorable line from Naomi Campbell, who has the honor of being more of a Culture Club fan. “We used to throw eggs at the Wham! fans,” she admits.
A longer review of Elvis ran last month.
Supporters of George Michael will enjoy this movie, but the rest of us won’t be thrilled
Also to see
The black phone
Given the Mediterranean weather outside, there was a surprisingly large crowd at the Odeon Hereford’s 6:30 p.m. showing of The Black Phone (15, 102 minutes) on Wednesday.
They were rewarded with some decent jump scares, but a film that swings a little precariously from a dark thriller featuring kidnapped children into supernatural horror.
It’s based on a short story by American writer Joe Hill, who knows a thing or two about moving creepy stories from page to screen; his father is the mighty Stephen King.
Gwen believes she has psychic powers, which she will also need if Finney is kidnapped; by a mask-wearing weirdo known as The Grabber, and played, somewhat against the type, by Ethan Hawke
Set in a 1978 suburb of Colorado, the film centers on a brother and sister, Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), several of whose schoolmates are missing. Gwen believes she has psychic powers, which she will also need if Finney is kidnapped; by a mask-wearing weirdo known as The Grabber, and played, somewhat against the type, by Ethan Hawke.
Locked in a basement, Finney then begins communicating via the black phone of the same name with his captor’s previous victims, who give him tips on what to do and what not to do to escape.
The director is Scott Derrickson, a horror veteran, although his most mainstream film is 2016’s huge Marvel hit Doctor Strange. He keeps this bowling very vigilant (apart from the bit when the young woman in front of me buried her face in her boyfriend’s arm) and has the good sense to keep it fairly concise.