Entertainment

Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis' Is a Horny Fantasia

The biopic starring Austin Butler as the "King of Rock and Roll" is messy but entrancing.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

Baz Luhrmann understands lustful hysteria. He understood it when he photographed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes falling in love via a fish tank in Romeo + Juliet. He understood it when he invited us into the Moulin Rouge by way of Kylie Minogue dressed as a green fairy. He even understood it when Jay Gatsby introduced himself as fireworks shot off in his backyard. And in Elvis, his latest movie-slash-fantasia, he understands what his subject’s gyrating hips could do.

Luhrmann loves a grand entrance and he gives Austin Butler as Elvis one of the ages. Playing at a small-town radio showcase, the King is introduced as a timid youngster, praying with his family, mourning the loss of his younger brother who died at childbirth. But when he gets on stage, something changes. It’s like he’s possessed. He launches into “It’s Alright Mama” and his pelvis begins to thrust as his voice soars over the crowd. The homophobic taunts that first greeted him are quickly subsumed by the horniness that seems to overtake every girl and some boys in the audience. Lurhmann’s camera never settles, but the frenetic energy is visceral. By the time he’s zooming in on an anonymous woman’s face, who appears to be on the verge of orgasm or religious ecstasy, you fundamentally get it.

One of the challenges of the music biopic is the ability to convey the magnetism of the performer it is trying to replicate. On that level, Elvis succeeds. Through a mix of Butler’s sensational work-something between interpretation and seance-and Luhrmann’s natural inclination for razzle dazzle, the film gets at the thigh-shuddering thrill of what it must have been like to watch Presley on stage. Luhrmann loves fireworks, and he knows he has a human firework in Butler and does everything to spotlight his star.

But Luhrmann is also fundamentally a messy filmmaker, and Elvis is a messy film. Caught between traditional biopic and Baz Spectacular Spectacular it occasionally falls into all familiar beats where the surprise of Butler’s energy and Luhrmann’s style is subsumed by the conventions they are trying to balk. And then there’s Tom Hanks, whose Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, is our narrator-slash-ringmaster. Hanks’ performance embodies the concept of “your mileage may vary.”

Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

Coated in prosthetics, Hanks affects an approximation of Parker’s unplaceable accent, a mix of his native Dutch ancestry and his instincts toward Americana. It’s both inherently laughable-I can’t get the way he says “wiggling” out of my head-and fully in keeping with the tone of the movie. Parker is Luhrmann’s villain, but he’s also his stand-in. It’s clear that Luhrmann identifies with the man who calls himself the “Snowman,” a carnival barker with an eye for talent and splash. We first see Elvis through Parker’s eyes, which all but projects cartoon dollar signs mixed with heart eyes. But Luhrmann is also revolted by Parker, who insists he wasn’t the cause of Elvis’ downfall as he struts through an empty casino in a hospital robe, his fake skin now covered in liver spots. It’s this push and pull that eventually wins you over, turning Hanks’ admittedly over-the-top work into something beyond parody.

Luhrmann’s near-compulsive restlessness is a good fit for master showmen like Elvis and Parker. In the first minutes of the film-after a bedazzled Warner Bros. logo-his camera almost never stops moving, swooping around a model of Las Vegas. Subtlety is not Luhrmann’s strength. To make the case that Elvis was bringing Black culture into the mainstream, he mashes up blues and rap as the King visits Memphis’ Beale Street, combining the vocals of Shonka Dukureh, playing Big Mama Thornton singing “Hound Dog,” and Doja Cat. Luhrmann can’t quite bring himself to actually delve into the real questions of appropriation versus appreciation that circulate Elvis’ identity. The director appreciates the radical nature of Elvis’ style and the way it angered segregationists, but the Black artists featured also treat Presley as fundamentally a hero rather than someone who used their art for his own gain.

More than anything, Luhrmann, and basically everyone on screen, is horny for Elvis and, in turn, Butler. It goes beyond the screaming fangirls. You can see the lust in the eyes of Kodi Smit-McPhee playing Elvis’ early touring companion Jimmy Rodgers Snow. It’s there in the young boy who lights up when he sees Elvis on TV to the anger of the conservative household around him. Even Elvis’ scenes opposite his mother, played by Helen Thomson with painted-on eyebrows, have an Oedipal quality.

And it all works, mainly because Butler is so good. The actor, best known prior to this for a small part in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and teen heartthrob status on The CW series The Carrie Diaries, is completely captivating. He has mastered not only the voice and the moves, but the ineffable star quality of his character. (Can you tell I’m getting flustered?) Sure, both him and the movie start to struggle as the timeline slowly creeps to Elvis’ death, bogged down in the addiction tropes that have become de rigueur for these projects. But even that can’t fully dull the spark of what Butler is doing.

Elvis is overstuffed and frantic, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do in reminding audiences of the power of Elvis Presley. He’s Romeo or Gatsby or Satine at the Moulin Rouge. He’s impossible to ignore. With Butler as his copilot, Luhrmann sets loins afire.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.

Entertainment

Why the Shocking Twist in 'Bodies Bodies Bodies' Is So Killer

The A24 horror-comedy has a lot to say about how logged on we are today.

A24
A24
A24

This story contains spoilers about the ending of Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.Even if you’ve tried to game the TikTok algorithm to feed you videos from #fashiontok, #foodtok, or whatever else you might be interested in, when you open the app, you tend to be inundated with a whole lot of discourse. In many ways, it’s incredible how attuned young people are in knowing who they are and how comfortable they are having frank conversations. But in other ways, sometimes it can feel like quick-hit platforms have a tendency to deduce real issues or strip things of their meanings-whether that’s teens self-diagnosing themselves with mental illness, or people labelling musicians as “female or male manipulator artists” without ever listening to their music.

A24’s latest horror comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies (out now in theatres) about a group of 20-somethings partying during a hurricane that turns into a hunt for a killer is like a movie downloaded from the current millennial-Gen-Z cusp moment of the internet we’re in. When the trailer for the movie directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe, based on a story from “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian, dropped earlier this year, it made that very clear. In just over a minute and a half, we hear the cast of cool girl breakouts yelling, “You’re always gaslighting me,” “you fucking trigger me,” “you’re so toxic,” and “you’re silencing me.” Even the movie’s tagline is, “This is not a safe space.”

Bodies Bodies Bodies is very much logged onto millennial/Gen Z social media-isms throughout, from lines hilariously pieced together by the Twitter zeitgeist to scenes featuring TikTok dances. The movie operates on a delectable kind of slasher-movie paranoia, making the audience just as unsure as the slumber party gone wrong with who is killing them off left and right. But given how much of a playful satire it is of contemporary youth culture, it ends up being a twist that feels all but inevitable, and couldn’t be more razor-blade sharp.

A24
A24
A24

Once the torrential downpour stops and the sun comes up, it seems as if Maria Bakalova‘s Bee is about to be our Bodies Bodies Bodies final girl, now that she’s realized how much her relationship with Sophia (Amandla Stenberg) is based on lies. As a test to see how easily Sophie can lie-and therefore deny killing all of her friends from midnight until dawn-Bee asks her if she cheated on her with Myha’la Herrold’s Jordan. It’s a fact that Bee already knows to be true, considering she came across a pair of panties in Sophie’s car that matched a bra she noticed in Jordan’s bag. When Sophie denies it, Bee tries to take her phone (which Jordan admitted would have texts about their recent hook-up on it), and the two start fighting outside in the remnants of the storm. Bee eventually pulls a phone out of the mud, and it looks like the WiFi and cell phone service that was gone all night is finally back. Thinking she’ll pull up the evidence she needs-and confirmation to get the hell out of there-she’s surprised when Sophie says, “That’s not my phone,” and even more surprised to see what’s on it.

It turns out that it belongs to David, Pete Davidson’s coked-out rich kid character whose parents’ house they’re partying at and was the first one to die in the movie. They know it’s David’s phone because it opens to a TikTok, soundtracked by the lockdown classic TikTok song “Bored In The House” by Curtis Roach and Tyga, that shows him waving around his dad’s decorative but very real sword (!) to try to open a champagne bottle (!), idiotically waving it towards himself, only to slice right into his own neck. As it turns out, nobody killed David-not an intruder, not Jordan, not Sophie, not Alice’s (Rachel Sennott) older boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace) she knew nothing about (except for the fact that he was a Libra moon), and not their friend Max (Conner O’Malley) who left early the night before. David accidentally killed himself, and hysteria is what killed everybody else. You could say that it’s almost predictable that it turns out to be a clout-chasing TikTok that led to the movie’s murderous spiral of events. Although, that would undercut what Reijn and DeLappe are trying to say with the darkly funny movie with an especially dark, funny twist. Like TikTok or Twitter, the movie is a constant feed of discourse, buzzwords, and blanket statements that snarkily laugh at and with its ensemble. There are many moments in particular that drive this home-like Alice trying to be sympathetic in talking about mental health, only to make the conversation about her, and David ridiculing his girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders) for getting all of her thoughts from Twitter after she says he “gaslights” her. On top of that, David picks up the sword and tries to go viral to begin with because his masculinity felt threatened by Greg, who did the trick in the first place.

While it would be downright terrifying if a party with people who are supposedly your best friends turned into a slasher flick, in Bodies Bodies Bodies, the horror isn’t a vengeful or heartless killer. Everybody may become a psychopath of sorts when they feel physically threatened or legitimately toxic name-calling and backstabbing ensues, but Bodies Bodies Bodies and its devilish twist is about the humour and horror in the devoid way we can use social media today more than anything else. Like Sophie and Bee’s terrified realization at the end, it makes you want to log off for awhile… right after you post a 100K-worthy tweet about it.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She’s on Twitter and Instagram.

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