Tuesday triumph:The wonder of Austin and Elvis

The wonder of Austin and Elvis.

Reflections on  Awards season.

John Lennon famously said, ‘Before Elvis there was nothing.’

Well, before Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (currently on release and doing great business) there have been several music biopics in recent years: Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen), Rocketman (Elton John) to name a few. 

Bohemian Rhapsody is the most commercially successful so far but one for the money, two for the show, Elvis is my favourite (and I liked the others).

I’ve seen it three times at the cinema already and would not balk at going again. It seems I’m not alone. The internet/social media is full of posts from people, of all ages, clocking their 4th, 5th, 6854329th viewing. Most of the posts show how much the film is emotionally connecting with audiences. People say they simply can’t stop thinking about the film for days after seeing it. One post I saw summed it up: ‘I can’t think of a film in recent times which has people so obsessively returning to the cinema so often to rewatch it. That’s the grand effect of Elvis and his legacy. And of course, the extraordinary work of Baz and Austin who gave his life for this role.’

At my second viewing I watched an elderly man in front of me who had come to see the film on his own. During the music sequences his leg surreptitiously moved to the beat as his hand rhythmically tapped his knee. During the closing scenes, as those around him silently wiped away a stray tear, from his lips there escaped several heartfelt sighs. The pain and feeling in the sound of those sighs was incredibly affecting. I thought then, this is what powerful cinema can be – art as a channel through which the emotions of a lifetime are elicited. That man likely remembered Elvis at the height of his phenomenal global success. But younger viewers who weren’t even alive when Elvis Presley died, in 1977, are also checking the film out. Some, in treating their parents/grandparents to a movie experience to see their idol from years ago, are not only themselves falling in love with Elvis but also with the man playing him, Austin Butler, surely destined now to be an idol himself.

At the time of writing, Elvis has become the second highest grossing music biopic ever, behind Bohemian Rhapsody. In its fourth weekend of release the box office for the film in the UK actually rose by 15% instead of steadily going down as is normal! Word of mouth on the film is incredibly positive. It’s drawing people into cinemas who haven’t ventured into one for years, even decades. I’m also aware that the film is proving popular with people of South Asian backgrounds. Elvis Presley has always had many fans within this diverse community.

All this is very good news for Hollywood, hopefully, green-lighting other adult skewing dramas, non franchise films and all things non comic book.

And so to Austin Butler 

Hollywood has finally found a successor to the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt – an all American heartthrob who can also act. Such stars rise organically. They are created by the public, not relentless PR. It is the ticket buying public that sees an actor up on screen, an undefinable something in him resonates with them and voila, a star is born. This special connection doesn’t happen often. It hasn’t happened in Hollywood for a long time. Present day Hollywood seems resigned to having little star power among its new actors but Elvis shows that good casting can still create magic. The coveted role of Elvis could so easily have gone to an established film actor such as Miles Teller who was considered, as was Aaron Taylor Johnson or to successful pop star Harry Styles. Instead, the director, casting agent and studio followed a more interesting curve and it has paid off for the film and Butler’s future career which, now, must be on very solid but heady ground.

Interestingly, it was a Baz Luhrmann film, Romeo and Juliet, which catapulted Di Caprio into the teen heartthrob stardom which then exploded with Titanic. Luhrmann commented, recently, that he is seeing the same sort of response from the public now to Austin Butler. On a smaller level, I can add that a short video I made of Austin at the London premiere of Elvis initially had 500 views on my YouTube channel. Since the film’s release, the figure now stands at 55,000. It rises by about 2000 daily. That suggests that new fans are scouring the internet for information and news about him.

Apart  from his looks and talent, Butler’s extra ‘it’ factor is that he has the classic poise and charm of the stars of yesteryear. It’s been interesting hearing him speak of looking to the likes of Paul Newman and Marlon Brando for style inspiration when deciding upon a look for the photo shoots at Cannes where Elvis premiered. He’s also articulate and thankfully doesn’t speak in the meaningless platitudes and word salads of many currents actors – all the better, perhaps, for those awards speeches that may be coming up?

Awards reflections

I’m pretty confident Elvis will be in the building come awards season.

Best actor

Even at this early point, I will say, if Austin Butler doesn’t get a nomination for the best actor Oscar at next year’s ceremony, it will be criminal. And frankly, if he doesn’t win, there’s no justice. 

Sometimes, there is a performance in a film that is so complete, it’s hard to see what can top it, even if you haven’t yet seen the other contenders. I felt the same about the following when I saw them months before awards season started: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, Will Smith in King Richard, Jean Du Jardin in The Artist and Marion Cotillard in La vie en rose. All went on to win in their categories.

Elvis impersonators always tend to depict the hamburger guzzling, rhinestone covered jumpsuit wearing, bloated Elvis of the 1970s Las Vegas years. They almost never pick the svelte, gorgeous, hip swivelling, black quiffed Elvis of the 1950s and 60s who shook up the world, became the biggest selling artist of all time and arguably the greatest musical performer of all time.

Austin Butler gives his everything to channel the Elvis of each era and the result is phenomenal. 

It’s great enough when an actor captures the voice, mannerisms and moves of an icon. To embody the legend’s magical charisma and star quality is to take the performance into another league. Especially when that person was larger than life. And few stars have been bigger than or shone as brightly on the world stage as Elvis. Austin captures the electricity of Elvis Presley astonishingly well. At certain points in the film (the 1968 comeback special leather clad segment and the Las Vegas performances, in particular) I had to remind myself that I was not watching the man himself but a young actor who wasn’t even born when Elvis died. (Elvis’ granddaughter, actress Riley Keough apparently, too,  turned to her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, during their private screening and asked, ‘is that your dad, or Austin?’)

But it isn’t just as Elvis the stage performer that Austin shines, he is as convincing in the bits in between where we see something of Elvis the man.

Who knew the generic blonde kid from Nickelodeon had so much talent in him?

Best Film + Best Director 

The film is a little uneven. It’s a tad too long. Nevertheless, it deserves a nomination in the top 10 films the Oscars now recognise. I would go further and say it deserves to be in the top 5. For all the reasons I’ve set out above, when cinema moves an audience as much as this film does, that’s magic. I don’t see it winning but a nomination is a must.

Director – it’s hard to think of a better director/subject matter mix than Luhrmann and Elvis. The greatest showman director and the greatest showman. So, of course the razzle, dazzle is suitably spectacular. The frenetic pace, the frantic editing, the sheer gusto is also all typical Luhrmann, not to everyone’s taste but eye catchingly impressive. But, for me, it’s the heart Luhrmann has put into telling this story which makes him a worthy nominee and deserving of a sneaky win (though I think that may not happen).

Best supporting actor

Never count out the ever popular Tom Hanks. On first viewing his performance struck me as a little pantomime villainish. The fat suit and prosthetics didn’t help. However, follow up viewings reveal subtle layers of characterisation and manipulation in Hanks’ portrayal which are the hallmarks of a clever actor immersed in his role. It’s easy to miss that Hanks is playing a character (Colonel Tom Parker, the shady manager of Elvis) within a character played by the Colonel himself within yet another layer of character (the person he really was) because as we discover Colonel Tom Parker was neither a colonel, a Tom or a Parker. Don’t be fooled because Hanks makes it looks easy. You don’t come out of the film loathing the colonel because Hanks gave a hammy performance. You feel  contempt because Hanks gave a damn good one. I don’t see wins for Hanks but depending on the competition I do see nominations.

Costume design, hair and make up, production design, editing and other less showy nominations and wins are very likely.