Loving Music—even in films
Elvis and Musicophilia
By Marc Glassman
Baz Luhrmann, director & co-script w/Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce & Jeremy Doner
Starring: Austin Butler (Elvis), Tom Hanks (Col. Tom Parker), Helen Thomson (Gladys Presley), Richard Roxburgh (Vernon Presley), Olivia DeJonge (Priscilla Presley), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jimmie Rogers Snow), David Wenham (Hank Snow), Yola Quartey (Sister Rosetta Tharpe)
Elvis Presley’s life is so full of drama that it was bound to be made into a big budget film at some point. It’s astonishing it has taken so long. After all, it’s nearly 45 years since he died in the summer of 1977, gone when he was only 42. During his short but amazing life, he had revolutionized popular music, been a Hollywood star, made a very public comeback on network television and become a million dollar a year entertainer in Las Vegas.
That’s surely enough for several bio-pix but Elvis is only partially about the man and the music. It’s really about two things: Presley’s strange relationship with his avaricious manager Colonel Tom Parker and about the transformation of pop culture from Elvis’ time until now as interpreted by Baz Luhrmann, the hyperbolic Australian auteur. Make no mistake about it, this is less a film about Elvis and more one by Luhrmann, whose Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby were hardly accurate descriptions of fin-de-siecle Paris and New York in the Roaring Twenties.
Luhrmann’s Elvis is the story of a naïve musical genius, whose greatness was betrayed by a corrupt Svengali who called himself Colonel Parker but was really an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk. In a sure to be controversial star turn, Tom Hanks, plays Parker, tricked out with a fat suit and a strange accent, half cornpone Southern and half cosmopolitan European. It’s a compelling performance—mesmerizing and upsetting—which might have been matched by Austin Butler’s charismatic Elvis except for Luhrmann, who tilts Hanks’ Parker to pole position by making him the narrator of the film. We end up viewing Elvis from the outside, as a man of simple pleasures and tastes apart from an authentic talent for music.
Perhaps Luhrmann intended to turn Elvis into a Southern Fifties version of Mozart with the Colonel as a talentless Salieri. At any rate, it places Presley’s problematic association with Parker along with his overly devotional love for his mother as the defining relationships in his life. While that may be true, it downplays his marriage to his child bride Priscilla and more to the point, cuts out his working friendships with musicians like Scotty Moore, Floyd Cramer and Bill Black, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, brilliant songwriters Leiber and Stoller and singers the Jordanaires and the Sweet Inspirations.
A very different movie could be made about Elvis as a great singer and interpreter of blues, gospel and r’n’b, which helped to make rock’n’roll the most important pop music for a couple of eras, from the Fifties to the Nineties. The question of whether Elvis stole his music from black artists like Big Mama Thornton and Sonny Boy Williamson while copying the style of Little Richard and others could have been the main one in the film. Instead, it’s a side issue, dismissed by showing that Elvis admired black musicians. While that’s great, it doesn’t address where he got the music from—and whether the originators received remuneration for what they did.
Luhrmann’s Elvis is a style extravaganza, fully in keeping with the rest of his films. His cinema is replete with arresting images, bombastic music pushed to shatteringly high decibels, and eye-popping editing that keep your eyes fixed to the screen. Luhrmann’s films are the ultimate realization of the eye candy aesthetics of the Nineties and Aughts, filled with images and sounds and visual f/x that made music videos and TV ads so exciting at the time. But what works for a minute may not as satisfying over two and a half hours. That’s what the Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley, gradually discovered and others, too. But Baz Luhrmann may be the big exception. Possibly because he makes a film once every five years, his work remains interesting from a visual point of view. How successful Elvis is as a drama is another question.
Should people see Elvis? If you’re fascinated by the man, and millions are, then, yes, it should be seen by them. How about the rest of us? Luhrmann pushes his style to its excessive limit but I’m not sure to what end he does it. Is the film a critique of pop culture starting with rock’n’roll? He starts with circuses and side-show acts and ends in Vegas. That says something. But is he endorsing any of it? Not necessarily. It seems as if Luhrmann enjoys what Presley and his generation created in the Fifties without deciding that it’s all worth endorsing.
The same ambiguity resides around Luhrmann’s depiction of Elvis. Is he a figure of tragedy, a gifted musician, who allowed his life to be derailed by a conniving business manager? Or was he someone who frittered away his talents and life, spurning the lucky break—the right song at the right time—that made him a superstar? In the end, we don’t know and neither does Luhrmann. So, it’s not a great film because it lacks a genuine point-of-view. But is it a good film? Well, it’s stylish and fun to watch. And I think that will be true in a decade or even two. Like it or not, this will now be the go-to Elvis film. As such, yes, you should see it.
Masaaki Taniguchi, director
Hiroyuki Ono, script based on Akira Saso’s webcomic
Starring: Kai Inowaki (Saku Urushibara), Honoka Matsumoto (Nagi Naniwa), Ikusaburo Yamazaki (Taisei Kishino), Nao Kawazoe (Sayo Tanizaki), Shinnosuke Abe (Kanichi Aota), Kanji Ishimaru (Ryu Kishino), Mari Hamada (Miyako Mukumoto)
Musicophilia is one of 24 features being presented by the Japanese Cultural Centre (JCCC) as part of the 11th annual Toronto Japanese Film Festival. It will be shown on June 25 at the JCCC’s Kobayashi Hall. For further information, check out https://jccc.on.ca/event/2022/06/toronto-japanese-film-festival-2022 or call 416-441-2345.
Anyone who listens regularly to The New Classical FM, and certainly those who work at the station, have experienced some version of musicophilia. Loosely defined, it’s the love of music, which the esteemed neurologist Oliver Sachs in his book “Musicophilia” opined was the way that we “experience pain and grief more intensely” while bringing “solace and consolation at the same time.” He wrote “music is an essential part of being human” in the book and I wholeheartedly agree with him.
So I was intrigued to see that the Toronto Japanese Film Festival was showing a film called Musicophilia and am pleased to have seen it. The film features a quintet of characters besotted by music. The main character Saku is a classic figure, the outsider, the half-brother, whose mother abandoned her potential career as a cellist after she gave birth out of wedlock to her son, who was fathered by a famous contemporary composer, Ryu Kishino. Upon entering into art college two decades later, Saku is dragooned into helping a new and quite eccentric friend Kanichi Aota, whose abrasive style and confrontational music has held him back from graduation and a career. Suddenly, the young artist who never wanted to deal with music, having seen his mother reduced to genteel poverty as an instructor instead of acclaim as a musician, finds himself helping out the other students, most of whom are in awe of the school’s rising star, Taisei Kishino. Yes, that’s right: Saku’s half-brother, the acknowledged one, is following in his father’s footsteps as the best young composer.
As the plot description attests, this is a melodrama, with plot devices that go back hundreds of years. There are two attractive young women, too—one who loves Taisei but whom Saku adores and one who has fallen for Saku and has to fight for his love and attention. Musicophilia would merit a pass if that’s all the film contains. Happily, the film is quite spirited with lots of humour, mainly supplied by the gauche Aota and a general sense of energy as if the idea of a music school in an arts institution is enough to keep audiences—and the film’s students—engaged. Even better, although the music in the film isn’t top notch, it is more than adequate. I hate hearing contemporary music used as a form only worthy of satire. Here it’s treated with respect and there’s even a lecture, which Saku attends, where Schoenberg’s 12-tone method is adequately explained.
Musicophilia even touches on synesthesia, when listening to music sparks your awareness of colours and smells. Saku has this condition, which is rare and extraordinary. Liszt had it as did Scriabin and Sibelius. More recently, Messiaen had it, and so did Duke Ellington. The film attempts to convey that condition in the film, not totally successfully, but it’s a good try.
Musicophilia is a film with a good heart and some lovely ideas. For those who love music and can put up with a melodramatic plot, it’s well worth seeing.