Elvis (2022)

I'll start by acknowledging what I assume is obvious: Elvis is not, by any reasonable definition, a Christmas movie. Despite that, there are aspects of the movie that use holiday imagery and associated plot points in ways that are unusual and interesting enough to be worth exploring here. That said, there's a reason this is getting written and posted in the "off-season:" this film is Christmas-related, rather than Christmas media.

I'll start where I usually finish: with an assessment. The movie is good, though I'm not convinced it's quite in the same league as most of this year's best picture nominees. I found the movie technically impressive and intellectually interesting, but not at all emotionally engaging. I should probably acknowledge I'm not a huge fan of Elvis - this might play much differently to someone with more of an initial attachment to the singer.

More importantly, I don't think this was trying to engage emotionally. Its approach felt more like that of a fable, making its subject seem somewhat inhuman. We were shown what he did and how he acted, but the only insight we were offered into why is in the form of an unreliable narrator. If anything, it seems to be working against the typical musical biopic formula, where the intent is usually to explore the humanity of the person in question. Despite the fact the star's life would have aligned nicely with that template, Luhrmann's Elvis goes in a very different direction. Given how many biopics still follow in Walk Hard's footsteps, I'd consider this a feature rather than a bug.

But that does mean the movie is more sideshow than story. That was clearly intentional, as evidenced by the highly stylized (even relative to Baz Luhrmann) way it was shot and even more stylized editing, which is reminiscent of both Speed Racer and Ang Lee's Hulk. I'm serious about listing those as likely influences, by the way: Elvis uses very similar panels to Hulk to evoke both record album designs and comic books. The movie leans into the fact Elvis was a huge fan of "Captain Marvel, Jr.," incorporating the detail into the narrative. Meanwhile, the bright colors, moving cuts, and overlapping images, here tied to Las Vegas (and to a lesser extent Christmas, as I'll get to in a moment), mirror those in Speed Racer. For what it's worth, I don't consider Elvis on par with Speed Racer. The fact I don't begrudge it its nomination for Best Picture should go a long way highlighting just how underrated I think the Wachowski sisters' anime adaptation was in 2008.

This style also of course ties into the narrative. The point-of-view character is a showman (or "snowman," as he prefers) with a background in carnival attractions. He sees the world - and Elvis Presley - through this lens, so that's the way we're seeing him. And that means bombast and excitement: Parker misses the human details, so we're given only ambiguous glimpses.

But I promised you some Christmas, so let's talk a little more about the movie's narrator and antagonist, Colonel Tom Parker, the Snowman. The movie opens with a series of Christmas cards featuring Parker and Elvis, which soon transition into the colorful lights of Vegas. Around the middle of the movie, there's an extended sequence in which Parker and Elvis feud over a Christmas special the singer's contractually obligated to make. Parker and the TV executives try to pressure Presley into making a traditional holiday special against his wishes, while Elvis desires a comeback highlighting his musical style and inspirations.

This is a crucial moment in the plot, and it reflects ongoing themes about the battle between art and business. This is ultimately a film about an artist who makes a deal with the devil, and both Christmas and Vegas are presented as manifestations of that devil. These are cages, and Elvis is fighting for freedom. He wins against the former but ultimately fails to break free of Vegas before it kills him.

I find this depiction of Christmas in media fascinating. It's certainly not unheard of to see variations on the excesses of commercialism used as an antagonistic force, but it's almost always in opposition to some "true" meaning of Christmas. Here, Christmas is presented only in its negative aspects. It's part of a massive, money-driven enterprise that suffocates art in order to turn a profit. It's a con, or - in Parker's slang - snow.

Christmas is really only one aspect of this force in the movie, of course. It's more a symbol of Parker's ideology, and at most a tertiary one behind comic books and Las Vegas. But it all melds together into a four-color world of larger-than-life heroes and villains, powers beyond those of mortals, and magical words and places. It's worth noting that Shazam!, the official adaptation of the characters Presley was a fan of, explored visual connections between comics and Christmas, as well.

Very little of that relates to the movie's quality, of course. As I said at the start, this is good, which is hardly surprising: the Oscars are a long way from perfect, but the vast majority of their Best Picture nominees are at least some version of "good." Just where you think Elvis falls on the spectrum between "good" and "spectacular" is going to depend on how invested you are in the story. For me, I wasn't all that interested in the character (though the stylistic flourishes and connections to media I am interested in made up some of the difference). Still, this isn't the kind of biopic that leaves you feeling like you know the subject. If you're expecting otherwise, you might be disappointed.

But taken on its own merits, I found it a fascinating experience. Austin Butler is incredible in the lead role, and Tom Hanks is... well, he's fine, though I think Colin Farrell played the same character better in The Batman. The rest of the cast is great, and the visuals are beautiful: it's absolutely worth a watch, whether your interests lie in Christmas, music, Las Vegas, comic books, or something else entirely.