An all-out assault on the senses that can break the will of even professional athletes (not to mention an out-of-shape journalist reeling from the aftermath of a booster shot), director Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis biopic is so insufferable that it makes it clear why studios should always keep some watch on writers, and feels like not one but two of the worst Indian blockbusters in recent memory. No one expected Luhrmann to investigate some of the darker aspects of Elvis’ life – the king of rock and roll was never able to shake off accusations of predatory behavior towards minors, for example – but as a fan of the filmmaker’s maximalist style, I didn’t expect Elvis to be the ungodly marriage of the hagiographical Sanju and the structurally anarchic KGF Movies.
But first, a story. In an effort to maintain the bare minimum of journalistic integrity, I decided that because I wanted to write about the recent KGF: Chapter 2, I had to familiarize myself with KGF: Chapter 1 first. Been a few weeks ago I threw away I didn’t know what to expect and was totally unprepared for what was to come. Two minutes have passed and the unskippable trailer that always plays on Prime Video before your movie or show ends. I was only half-aware, having realized that I had no choice but to wait.
But it wasn’t until a minute later that I was hit with two quick, back-to-back goals. The first was that for some reason Prime was plugging me into the first KGF movie while I was waiting to watch the first KGF movie. It was strange, but not so strange; Netflix often advertises directly to paying Netflix customers. But then it hit me. What I was watching wasn’t a trailer for KGF: Chapter 1. I was watching the movie itself.
From garish title cards featuring “Rocking Star Yash” and randomly stitched together visuals of the actor posing menacingly on screen, I discovered that the opening minutes of KGF: Chapter 1 were deliberately crafted to mimic a frantic assembly. The most accurate way to describe KGF (or, at least, most of it I’ve been able to watch) is like sitting in front of an endless version of one of those “last time on… which air before new TV episodes. shows.
I never managed to finish the film; I left after the scene in which our “hero”, after relentlessly stalking and harassing a poor woman, cornered her in a hotel room wearing only a bathrobe. I chose to stop watching KGF because it is morally offensive work. But I probably would have forgiven him and continued if his crimes had been limited to offending the language of cinema. I dodged a bullet with this film, and also KGF 2, which I subsequently lost all ambition to watch. But life wasn’t going to let me go that easily. If I had watched Elvis at home and not on an IMAX screen, I probably would have stopped halfway through.
Loud, ridiculous and easily the worst film of Luhrmann’s career, Elvis swears by the kind of relentless storytelling that can only be rivaled by the filmmaker’s objectively bizarre decision to frame the rockstar’s life from the perspective of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker – it’s like telling the Taylor Quick Story through the eyes of Scooter Braun – and his complete disinterest in examining the person under the prosthesis. By the time the film reveals that the reason it appears as a three-hour Shakespearian fever dream is because that’s exactly what it is – in a blind, failed moment, it’s implied that all of this was Colonel Parker’s life flashing before his eyes as he shook off that deadly coil – it’s too late.
And in his quest to capture the swirling life of the icon, he just doesn’t stop to breathe. Nor does he have a single emotional thread he can weave through the lush tapestry of Elvis’ career. Although there is a timid attempt to attribute this responsibility to his love affair with his wife Priscilla. Their scenes together are highlighted with retaliation after retaliation from the song “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which serves as a kind of leitmotif but does little justice to the movie, the characters, or itself.
The film is more concerned with projecting Elvis as a bird trapped in a golden cage, or comparing him to a circus monkey. Luhrmann, who had a four-hour cut of this film which was apparently sabotaged by Jesus Christ himself – thank goodness – leans into the tragedy of Elvis’ life, dutifully hitting every required note with the force of a million muscle men. We’re meant to sympathize with him, feel sorry for the way he was treated, and walk out of the theater not with a desperate need for ORS, but with renewed admiration for his talents.
This should never be the burden of the movie fix a character’s bad behavior. Ideally, the movie should explain it, put it in context, and move on. But like Rajkumar Hirani’s objectively terrible biopic of Sanjay Dutt, Elvis actively chooses to find excuses for his protagonist’s misdeeds. Having probably realized that even the King’s most dedicated fans can’t explain his alleged pattern of predatory abuse – his dating Priscilla began when she was just 14, a decade younger than him – the film completely ignore it. And he treats Elvis’ desertion from his family and his repeated infidelities with the kind of emotionless pragmatism one would normally reserve for placing an order for waffles at a Vegas restaurant.
There are, of course, a few moments where Lurhmann’s signatures sing. A sequence with BB King at Club Handy is particularly electric, as is another scene consisting entirely of – and I’m not exaggerating – shots of instant star Austin Butler strutting through the streets while a Doja Cat remix of “Hound Dog” hits in the background. This is the kind of transcendent fusion of music and images that Luhrmann does so well. But pretty much all of that happens in the first hour. The rest of the time, you mostly wait to leave the building.
Post Credits Scene is a column where we dissect new releases every week, with a particular focus on background, crafting, and characters. Because there’s always something to fix after the dust settles.
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