ELVIS (2022) – Baz Luhrmann’s Bio Pic of Elvis Presley Is Visual Storytelling at its Best

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ELVIS (2022), the new bio pic of Elvis Presley by director Baz Luhrmann, is a visual treat.

I’m a big fan of director Baz Luhrmann. I’ve really enjoyed his movies, films like ROMEO AND JULIET (1996), MOULIN ROUGE! (2001), and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013). I find his visual style and fast-paced energetic editing contagious, as his films draw me in immediately and never let go. I know some folks find his style too off putting, but I think he is a master at creative storytelling, using images and music often in a nonlinear way to tell a complete story. While my favorite movie by Luhrmann remains his version of THE GREAT GATSBY, I really enjoyed his latest, ELVIS, which perfectly captures the life of Elvis Presley, as Luhrmann’s spectacular movie making style is in lock step with the spectacle of Elvis’ larger than life career.

Luhrmann overcomes the somewhat odd screenplay which he co-wrote with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce, which strangely focuses more on Elvis’ controversial manager Colonel Parker than the King himself. This might not be a fair statement, because the movie does cover Elvis’ career from beginning to end, but it’s seen through its entirety through the prism of Parker’s vision, who serves not only as the main supporting character but also as the film’s narrator.

ELVIS opens with Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) in a hospital bed, and in voice-over narration he’s reminiscing and says that people blame him for Elvis’ death, but he says, that simply is not true, and then in typical Baz Luhrmann style, the film explodes into a myriad of flashbacks as we meet a young Elvis (Austin Butler), and the film takes off from there bringing to full life with amazing images and electrifying music the career of the man who would become the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.

We learn of Elvis’ roots and early influences from the jazz community, and we are there when Colonel Parker, a man who got his start doing promotions in circuses and is constantly looking for that act which will take him to the promised land, sees Elvis perform and witnesses the insane reaction Elvis gets from the women in the audience. As Parker says, the best acts are those which make people pay money to enjoy things in ways which they later realize perhaps they shouldn’t. He sees that Elvis has this power.

And once Elvis agrees to take the Colonel on as his manager and promoter, Elvis’ career skyrockets, with one hit song after another, and soon the Colonel has Elvis starring in Hollywood movies, but after a sensational appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, controversy ensues as conservative political leaders take offense to Elvis’ signature and what they deemed erotic dance moves. When they threaten legal action, the Colonel advises Elvis to play it safe, and he sends him off to the military for three years to change his image and show that he can be all-American and conservative.

In the late 1960s, when times change, Elvis begins to be viewed as a has been, but in one of the movie’s best moments, Elvis performs his 1968 Comeback Special on NBC, a special that was promoted and planned by Colonel Parker as a family Christmas event, but Elvis and the director of the show had other ideas. Elvis wore black leather and performed the way he wanted to, and the special was a huge ratings hit and inspired Elvis to start performing live concerts again. Suddenly, Elvis Presley was once again relevant.

This eventually led Elvis to performing in Las Vegas, because as the film shows. the Colonel had huge gambling debts, and as compensation for Elvis performing exclusively in Vegas, his debts were forgiven, and so the Colonel did everything in his power to keep Elvis performing there and only there, a decision which led to the King taking more drugs to keep him going to keep up with the incredible schedule, and eventually led to his early death at the age of 42.

I really liked ELVIS. As I said, Luhrmann’s style is energetic and captivating. There is never a dull moment. Its two hour and thirty-nine-minute running time flies by easily. He also captures the spectacle of Elvis’ career with big bright flashy numbers and musical montages.

There are some oddities. The emphasis on Colonel Parker is one of them. While the character is at the forefront throughout the movie and has an answer for everything, including that he was not responsible for Elvis’ death, the movie makes it quite clear what kind of influence Parker had on Elvis. Parker was always self-serving, and any decision he made which may have benefitted the rock star, always benefitted himself first. And, had Elvis broken away from Parker like he wanted, he probably doesn’t stay in Las Vegas, and chances are his life takes a different direction and perhaps he’s not dead by the age of 42.

And while the movie does provide a full comprehensive telling of the career of Elvis Presley, it does so largely on a superficial level. We see what happens throughout Elvis’ career, but the film never delves deeply into the thoughts and feelings of Elvis Presley, the man. For example, when in Las Vegas, doctors began pumping him with pills to get him through his shows, we see this happening, and we see Elvis readily taking these drugs without protest or question, but the film never really stops and takes a breath long enough for us to see what Elvis really thinks about all this.

As such, while Austin Butler delivers a notable performance as Elvis Presley, it’s not something Oscar-worthy. There’s not a lot of angst or insight or introspection, but there is a lot of performance. Why Butler is so good here is that he looks, moves, and sounds, just like Elvis Presley. So, his success stems largely from Baz Luhrmann the director, who creates this masterful visual work where we see the career of Elvis Presley recreated to perfection. On the other hand, he’s limited by Baz Luhrmann the screenwriter, whose co-written script never really delves into Elvis’s life beyond the superficial aspects of his career. I loved watching Austin Butler onscreen. But I wouldn’t say he will be up for an Oscar come Awards time.

On the other hand, Tom Hanks delivers a very memorable yet rather thankless performance as Colonel Tom Parker. Mostly unrecognizable under make-up and prosthetics which make him look older and heavier, Hanks plays the rather unlikable Colonel Parker as a man who knows who he is, a self-serving promoter, and who is comfortable walking in those shoes. Any loyalty he shows to Elvis throughout their time together is always connected to his own self-interests.

I also enjoyed Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley. Her spunky personality made it clear why Elvis fell so easily in love with her.

There are a lot of memorable moments in ELVIS, a lot that speak to racism, as Elvis received lots of push back and animosity for his friendship with the black music community, which he considered his roots and was the music he loved most. We witness the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy through Elvis’ eyes, and after Kennedy’s death, he wanted to make a public statement, but the Colonel dissuaded him, telling him that he was a singer and that he shouldn’t stick his nose in politics. It was a decision that largely led to Elvis’ later decision to ditch the Christmas format of the Comeback Special, as he wanted to let his singing do the talking to the nation.

At one point in a Las Vegas montage, while describing Elvis’ performance as being appropriate for the “older folks,” the narration mentions that for the younger folks, performing nearby are the young sensations known as The Jackson Five, and the juxtaposition of a young Michael Jackson with Elvis Presley in the same place at the same time is not lost on audiences, as Jackson would suffer a similar fate some thirty years later.

It also uses Elvis’ songs to great effect, like the sequence with “Suspicious Minds,” for example, when Elvis suspects the Colonel of not being straight with him.

I thought ROCKETMAN (2019) did a better job revealing who Elton John is as a person than ELVIS does with Elvis Presley. But in terms of visual storytelling, ELVIS is every bit as compelling as ROCKETMAN. There’s also more music, more scenes of Elvis performing, and just a museum quality of capturing history. Luhrmann’s storytelling style is that good.

If you want to experience the career of Elvis Presley… as long as you’re not expecting a deep introspective look into the man himself…. you can’t do much better than ELVIS.

It’s a hip-swiveling cinematic homage to the King of Rock and Roll.

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021) – Benedict Cumberbatch Performance Lifts Uneven Bio Pic

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021), an original Prime Video movie, is an elegant and colorful bio pic of Louis Wain, a 19th century English artist famous for his drawings of cats. Wain is played here by Benedict Cumberbatch.

And Cumberbatch is the reason you want to see this one. He delivers a great performance as he always does, although truth be told, Claire Foy is equally as good as Wain’s wife Emily, but she is in the film far less than Cumberbatch. Still, these two powerful performances carry this movie, which is a good thing, because the rest of the movie is rather uneven.

Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a kind soul and a bit of an odd duck. As depicted in this movie, he’s definitely on the spectrum, possibly schizophrenic or autistic, but one thing that is indisputable is he is an extraordinary artist and can sketch animals in seconds. In 1881, his father dies, and Louis is left to provide for his ailing mother and five sisters. He secures a full-time position as an artist for a major English newspaper, as its editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) is fascinated by Wain’s work. Over the years, Sir William serves as a mentor for Wain and remains a constant friend throughout his life.

The family also hires a governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) to help care for the children. Emily and Louis instantly share a connection, and not too long afterwards, they fall in love and get married, which causes a stir since Emily is not of the same social class as Louis. The two share a wonderful life and inspire each other to create art as they both see the world the same way. It’s also during this time that they find a stray cat and welcome it into their home, which begins Louis’ obsession with drawing cats.

But when Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer, their magical life comes to an end. After Emily’s death, Louis struggles to keep himself together, and from here on out his life is one tragedy after another, but he finds that the harder and more horrific his life becomes, the more brilliant and vibrant his cat drawings become. He is able to turn pain into art which while providing the world great beauty, drives his own mental health deeper into despair.

The “electrical” in the film’s title refers to Louis’ unique take on electricity. He views it as something more than just a mysterious power source for lights. He saw it as a power source for people, something that could be harnessed artistically, and he would have electric moments where he would feel the electricity and use that power to create his art. Emily was one of the few people who understood what he meant by this. As a fiction writer, I can’t deny that when I am in that “zone” where words fly easily, it does feel like an outside force like electricity has entered my brain, because often I write things which I will read later and say to myself, “I wrote that?” so it’s a concept that I definitely understand.

As I said, while I enjoyed THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it is a rather uneven film. I definitely enjoyed the first half more than the second. The first half of the movie which depicts first the courtship and then the marriage of Louis and Emily is lively, entertaining, and fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy share a warm chemistry and really bring these two characters and their love for each other to life. When describing the first half of this movie, words like “delightful” and “charming” come to mind.

But once Emily falls ill and eventually passes, the entire tone of the film changes, as Louis is assaulted by one mishap after another, some small, others tragic. And this part goes on for quite a while, and it’s simply not as satisfying as the first half of the movie.

And while the screenplay by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe, who directed, does a nice job depicting Louis Wain the man, one thing the film surprisingly does not do is offer much insight at all into the cat drawings. I mean, the audience gets to see plenty of these drawings, but no light is shed on Wain’s thinking behind them, and perhaps this is so because we might not know his thinking behind them, but the film doesn’t offer anything that speaks to this other than that Wain can draw cats and here are the drawings. There’s also not much insight into his relationship with cats. So, if you love cats, you might enjoy this movie, but I would argue that strangely cats really aren’t featured all too prominently here.

What is featured is yet another tremendous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. He is the reason I enjoyed this movie as much as I did. He portrays Wain as a stand-up decent man, and his initial awkward attempts to woo Emily are fun to watch. Later, as Wain becomes more and more haunted by his own mental demons, Cumberbatch captures this part of the man as well. The make-up here is also topnotch, and Cumberbatch looks believable as Wain as both a young man and a very old man later in the movie.

The last time I saw Cumberbatch, he played Greville Wynne in THE COURIER (2020), and he provided another fascinating performance as another real-life figure. I enjoyed THE COURIER somewhat more than I did THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, but in terms of acting, I thought Cumberbatch was even better here as Louis Wain than he was as Greville Wynne. And every time Wain mentioned electricity, I couldn’t help but think of another amazing biographical performance by Cumberbatch, as Thomas Edison in THE CURRENT WAR (2017). Benedict Cumberbatch seems to excel at playing these historical figures.

Claire Foy is also wonderful as Emily Richardson. She plays Emily as quite the eccentric character in her own right, the perfect match for Louis, and as I said, Foy and Cumberbatch are electric together. Had Foy been in this entire movie, I’d list her right up there with Cumberbatch for being the main reason to see this one, and up to a point she is, but her character dies midway through.

Foy is a wonderful actress, known for her work on the TV show THE CROWN (2016-2020), but she’s turned in some memorable movie performances as well. She stood out as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet in FIRST MAN (2018), as well as in the Steven Soderbergh thriller UNSANE (2018). I first noticed her as the fiery “girl” in the Nicholas Cage action/fantasy/horror movie SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011).

Veteran character actor Toby Jones adds solid support as newspaper editor Sir William Ingram. Jones has been in a gazillion films and adds quality support to each and every one of them. And I always like to point out that he’s the son of actor Freddie Jones, who got his start in Hammer Films, and debuted as one of the more memorable Frankenstein “monsters” ever, in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) with Peter Cushing.

Director Will Sharpe achieves mixed results here. At times, this one looks like an authentic period piece, while at others, the sets look cheap and backdrops phony. Now, I realize this may have been on purpose, to match the look of Wain’s drawings, but I can’t say I was convinced that this was the case. Had the entire movie owned this look, then I would have bought that premise more readily, but as it stands, it doesn’t. The film also doesn’t do the best job balancing its two moods, light and fun during the first half, and dark and tragic during its second.

But most disappointing of all is the lack of insight on Wain’s famous cat sketches. Little time is spent on what was going through Wain’s mind when he sketched those cats or his feelings towards cats in general. And no light is shed whatsoever on how he drew his art. There’s no depiction of any artistic process. The one time the film does this is Wain’s advice to Emily about her own art, where he tells her that there’s really only one rule to drawing, and that is to look. That is a notable moment in the movie, but it needed more of these.

While I did enjoy THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it did struggle to hold my interest the longer it went on. Keeping it together and the main reason to see this movie is the fabulous work of Benedict Cumberbatch with his portrayal of Louis Wain.

The first half of THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN is indeed electrical. The second half barely purrs.

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TOLKIEN (2019) – Unimaginative Look At Imaginative Author Tolkien

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For a bio pic about imaginative author J.R.R. Tolkien, TOLKIEN (2019) isn’t all that imaginative.

In fact, it’s slow moving and often dull, but it sure looks good!

Director Dome Karukoski, who hails from Finland, has made a handsome elegant production that hearkens back to the Merchant-Ivory classics of yesteryear, at least in appearance anyway. It’s well-acted by its principal leads, but its script lacks the necessary emotion and imagination to carry its audience through to the end. In short, its 112 minute running time seemed much longer.

TOLKIEN tells the story of author J.R.R. Tolkien, known of course for the epic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it does this by focusing on three phases of his life: his childhood, his time at school where he developed close friendships with a small group of students, and on the battlefields of World War I. While the film intercuts between all three of these periods, the bulk of the movie is spent on Tolkien’s time at school.

It’s at school where Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) meets his three closest friends, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). The group becomes friends as youths where they declare they will change the world through art, and they stay together as they move on to Oxford where they continue to develop their “fellowship,” a word and feeling that will linger in Tolkien’s mind and heart long after he has finished school.

At home, Tolkien becomes friends with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) who plays piano for their adoptive benefactor. The two become very close and eventually fall in love.

With the start of World War I, Tolkien finds himself on the battlefield, a brutal and unforgiving place that changes his life forever.

I guess.

That’s the thing about TOLKIEN. Its story never really resonates. Part of it is it’s not that captivating a story in the first place. Sure, Tolkien suffered on the battlefields of World War I, and friends were lost, but it wasn’t for these reasons alone that he wrote The Lord of the Rings.

The film hints that this is the case but never really hammers the point home. I mean, there are times on the battlefield where Tolkien hallucinates about dragons and other mythical creatures, but these images are shown fleetingly, and the connections to his later literary work are only implied.

I had a funny reaction watching TOLKIEN. I liked the main characters and enjoyed watching them, but the conversations and situations were so subtle, lifeless, and dull, that in spite of this I was rather bored throughout. It was akin to spending time with people you like but man, was the conversation flat.

Which is ironic since Tolkien was all about words, and here, the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford is superficial at best. It tells its story but without energy, imagination, or inspiration. And as I said, it’s also not much of a story. Tolkien was an orphan, yes, but the film paints a picture of a decent childhood, and he and his friends at school enjoyed quality times together. There didn’t seem to be much adversity.

The World War I scenes make their point regarding the brutality of trench warfare, but it’s all rather sanitized and doesn’t provide the necessary impact to show that such horrific warfare scarred or shaped Tolkien in any major way.

The love story between Tolkien and Edith Bratt is a good one, but again, there wasn’t a lot of adversity to overcome.

I did enjoy the acting, though. A lot.

Nicholas Hoult, who’s been playing Beast in the recent X-MEN reboots, and he’s been doing an excellent job in the role, is superb in the lead here as J.R.R. Tolkien. In spite of the script limitations, he captures Tolkien’s love of words and the arts, and he makes the author a likable person. He embodies Tolkien’s love of learning and quirky intellect, and at times Holt channels a Benedict Cumberbatch vibe with this performance.

Hoult’s performance was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Hoult was also memorable in last year’s THE FAVOURITE (2018).

Lily Collins was also excellent as Edith Bratt. In fact, Collins, who’s the daughter of singer Phil Collins, was probably my favorite part of TOLKIEN. In the film, Edith Bratt is portrayed as probably the person who influenced Tolkien the most. She’s a strong and articulate presence, and Collins does an outstanding job bringing these qualities to life and also being adorable as well. It’s easy to see by Collins’ performance why Tolkien fell in love with her.

For a movie that was strangely devoid of emotion, Edith Bratt was one of the few characters whose scenes were frequently moving, and Lily Collins’ performance was directly responsible.

Strong emotions were few and far between in TOLKIEN. One of the more powerful scenes in the movie comes near the end, when Tolkien sits down with the mother of one of his slain friends, and she admits she never really knew her son. The way Tolkien explains her son to her is one of the more emotionally charged sequences in the movie.

It was fun to see Colm Meaney in the movie in a key supporting role as Father Francis, a priest who Tolkien’s mother left in charge of her sons’ welfare. Meaney of course played Chief Miles O’Brien on both STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999).

And Derek Jacobi shows up briefly as language Professor Wright.

There also just wasn’t a whole lot of connections between Tolkien’s life story as told here in this movie and his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Sure, things are hinted at, and connections are made peripherally, but you have to connect the dots, which isn’t a bad thing, but what is bad is there simply aren’t a lot of dots to connect.

I enjoyed TOLKIEN well enough because I liked the performances and the look of the film, but for a story about J.R.R. Tolkien, it was all rather lackluster and subdued, and not at all an imaginative take on its very imaginative subject.

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