Baz Luhrmann’s, Elvis is the number one movie in the United States. Southern filmmaker, Mike McCarthy shares his take on the movie.
I have stood in the tiny room where Elvis and Jesse were born and still born. I have stood on the wooden bleachers where my parents (and most of Tupelo) sat during the 1956 Homecoming show. I have travelled Highway 78, the 100 mile trek between Memphis and Tupelo, more times now than Elvis. I continue to visit Jesse’ obscure grave in Priceville Cemetery. For 4 years I worked at Sun and stood in the spot where Elvis helped create rock and roll. I have eaten at Elvis’ booth at the Western Steak Lounge. Many of us have been to the Mid-South Coliseum. Several years ago I loaned my 1947 copy of CAPTAIN MARVEL JR. to the newly restored Lauderdale Courts where it spent the summer in Elvis’ teenage bedroom.
I have stood in the tinfoiled window room at Baptist Memorial hospital where Elvis recovered and inside the Emergency Room where he was pronounced dead. Like many Memphians, I shunned Graceland for years before falling in love with the concept of walking through 42 years of a man’s life and arriving at his grave. I have stood in the Mausoleum that originally contained his body.
I used these moments to create an isolation from myself and reality, a solace, religion, a fascination with death, a meaning for life, something to make my art better. I even named my son John Marvel after Elvis’ favorite superhero. I say all this to make you understand my level of Elvis understanding and yet I am still bewildered by his actions that led to his death.
I believe director Baz Luhrmann is trying to get to the same meaning in his new film ELVIS (clocking in at 5.6 minutes for every year Elvis lived, or, as long as it takes to see everything at Graceland). Is Luhrmann trying to remake Todd Browning’s classic 1932 film FREAKS? If so, then which freak is Elvis, first revealed in the film standing next to a shocking poster depicting a geek? A man who survived the toxins of his embryonic dead brother to become the greatest entertainer who ever lived. What sort of geek is that? Someone who stopped aging at nineteen until the final year of his life when it all came crashing like Dorian Gray. A man who says goodbye to the real Lisa Marie then crawls inside the body of a piece of metal called the Lisa Marie – as Elvis recites self-reflective poetry that seems to, ironically, come across as self-awareness.
Colonel Parker had an obsession with elephants that began with his old carny days. We see an array of elephant sculptures in the very first frames of the movie. As freaks go, you can’t beat John Merrick the Elephant Man; cinematic ground already covered by David Lynch who went on to make his own Elvis film WILD AT HEART. ELVIS is Baz Luhrmann’s attempt at ELEPHANT MAN with the Colonel as lead.
It’s rumored that the Nixon scene was filmed but not included in this movie. It makes me wonder if Elvis brushed shoulders that day in the White House with the wife of vice-president Gerald Ford. Betty Ford, a drug addict herself, went on to found the Betty Ford clinic specifically for those in the limelight who dealt with these issues. Elvis should have shaken hands with Betty Ford, not Nixon.
I have seen the movie twice. The Captain Marvel, Jr. worship is astounding. So nice to see obscure references to things I have obsessed over for decades with no budgets in my films spread across the screen in this epic way. The first time I was not emotionally prepared for what Luhrmann does at the end. You do not forget watching a movie, something of perhaps questionable value filled with cardboard characters, through a veil of unstoppable tears. “God speed, my love…”. -JMM
Mike McCarthy is a filmmaker, living in Memphis, Tennessee. Look for his film, Teenage Tupelo on Blu-ray this Christmas season along with a book published by Fantagraphics.