Issue #73: Even The Rebels 🎸
Elvis + Catherine Called Birdy
We know, it’s Wednesday. But we thought you deserved a treat given how unpredictable our publishing schedule has been since our summer hiatus. As promised, we’re diligently working through our screeners. So for this issue, we’re talking about two Oscar hopefuls centered on rebels who won’t quit: Elvis and Catherine Called Birdy.
First, we’ve got Cate on the pioneering sexuality of Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis. Then, Zosha examines the rambunctious spirit at the heart of Catherine Called Birdy. Both films are available to stream now on HBO Max and Prime Video respectively. So if you’ve seen them, (or plan to) drop us a line and tell us what you thought. And as always, happy movie yelling!
Cate on Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis
It’s hard to be a lover of filmic excess without also being a Baz Luhrmann devotee. The enigmatic director has near-cornered the market on bombast, and Elvis his latest feature is no different. In fact, Elvis may be the most Baz Luhrmann, Baz Luhrmann has ever been. And it’s hard to imagine there’s any way for him to top himself from here.
In some ways, Elvis is a biopic like any other. The film follows the life of the King of Rock and Roll from the inception of his career to his death. But what makes this outing slightly more engaging is that it’s told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker — the primary antagonist in Elvis’s career — played by Tom Hanks in a fat suit. The less said about that the better.
Luhrmann is incapable of doing anything without doing the most, and Elvis is certainly the most movie you’ll see this year. Luhrmann’s films are like mosaics — tapestries full of colour and texture. There’s depth in every shot, even as he creates them artificially. His signature frenetic pace bolsters the myth of the man. And his customary quick cuts and musical segues, tell you exactly what he wants you to care about. He spends precious little time on anything else. Elvis’s entire film career is contained in one brief montage. His movies, after all, aren’t the message.
Instead, the message is the way true artistry innovates and endures. When Colonel Parker first comes across Elvis and his band at a small showcase — wiggling his body and making the girls go wild — he immediately sees the sensation he has on his hands. He understands the shift Elvis is about to usher in, and he does his damnedest to make sure he gets his paws on him before anyone else can.
The spine of the story is that very exploitation. The film is framed as Parker’s testimony of innocence. But where the movie really shines is in firmly demonstrating what made Elvis such a sensation. He was a great vocalist, performer and musician sure. But he was also a novelty. Nowadays no one bats an eye at a stadium full of girls screaming for Harry Styles. But Elvis is where that trope originates. I’ve never been familiar with Elvis outside the oft-mocked signifiers that have survived him. But this film gave solid context for why he was such a revolutionary act.
At the time Elvis came on the scene, it was basically unheard of for an audience to have a bodily reaction to a performer. But in an early performance scene narrated by Parker, Luhrmann makes it clear that by dancing, wiggling his hips, and generally vying away from the solid and staid performers on the circuit at the time, Elvis essentially had his female audience members in heat. It gives context to the controversy that surrounded him at the time. At first, even he doesn’t understand the reaction. His poor mother thinks the girls are trying to kill him.
Add in the fact that his music was so heavily influenced by the music of then-contemporary Black artists, and he was basically seen as leading virginal white women down a path of sin. It seems quaint now, but it makes perfect sense. In essence, Elvis was smuggling “negro rhythms” into polite, white society, and driving women wild with his beats. He was in a very real way, a threat to the white supremacist order. By “moving like a goddamn nigger” he was smuggling the so-called debasement and debauchery assumed of all black people into what were supposed to be safe white spaces. He was a traitor who disrupted the segregated patriarchal paradise white men had built for themselves that kept women in their place by suppressing their desires.
Elvis helped introduce the idea that white women could have urges that ran contrary to Christian propriety, and made that idea mainstream. He was very much a threat to the white patriarchal order. Young, chaste white women were seeing in him something primal they had never had permission to access before. His naked sexuality sent them into a tizzy because it unlocked the lust and arousal they were never before permitted to feel, far less express. They were learning, in essence, about female pleasure. Because of his little wiggle, girls were losing their sense of propriety and accessing the basal human urges that have always resided within women, despite society’s best efforts to suppress them.
Additionally, Parker makes a point of noting that Elvis wasn’t styled like a “manly man.” He wore pink and slicked back a big bouffant. And it made the girls go feral. In a way, Elvis was perverting and queering them — driving them away from hetero-patriarchal norms. It’s telling too that Luhrmann included the implication that Elvis himself might be queer because that is how he would have been perceived. Men of that time simply didn’t do what he was doing. They didn’t parade around or peacock. Men didn’t present themselves as a product. The product was the music. They were basically workers providing a service. But Elvis was the product. The appeal of his shows was seeing his specific, bodily interpretation of a song — despite the fact that at any given time, 10-15 other artists had covers of the same 25 songs circulating on the radio. He made the music special instead of the other way around.
It’s part of what makes Elvis’ eventual demise so tragic. Luhrmann frames this larger-than-life, myth of a man as a simple boy who just feels moved by the Black music he grew up in proximity to. The approach collapses in on itself at times — as when young Elvis joins a Baptist revival tent and is… caught by the spirit? And again when he becomes The First White Ally™. But largely it lays out that Elvis performs because it’s in his blood. He cares less about being a star than he does about being able to connect to an audience with his body and soul. The energy his audiences feed him is what sustains him. It is Parker’s exploitation — up to and including severe financial abuse and plying him with drugs to that he could continue performing — is his undoing.
The way that Austin Butler portrays him, (in a breakthrough performance) Elvis reads as very simple-minded and not particularly encumbered by deep thought. In Butler’s hands, Elvis’ approach to performance is less a means to display his talent than it is a chance to connect to the divine part of him that was taken over and possessed by music the same way he was as a child. All the other stuff is just gravy.
That said, Butler really does have a star turn in this film. He embodies the sense of Elvis without falling into all-out mimicry. The voice, of course, is considered and noticeable. But it does not feel put on. Instead, Butler manages to find a way to connect to the feel of the man and bring that to the surface. His performance is a remarkable feat, and I almost dread discovering what Luhrmann had to do to get it out of him.
While the film does have its flaws — chief of which are that three-hour runtime and the fat suit we aren’t discussing — it is a gorgeous cacophony of sensation and emotion. I’m positively vibrating to see what Luhrmann does next.
Zosha on Catherine Called Birdy
Birdy (Bella Ramsey) is just trying to get by in this world. Well, that’s not entirely true: she’s trying to live her most rambunctious life, interested in whatever antics draw her attention at the moment — including but not limited to goofing around with her friends, bothering her brother, and plenty of other stuff generally considered unbecoming in a 14-year-old girl living in medieval times.
But in a different way Birdy (who, as the title might suggest, is formally called Catherine) is just trying to get by, trying to eke out a bit more childhood in a world that demands she start acting as a young woman might. That means helping her tend to her pregnant mother Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), or — more often, and certainly more calamitously to Birdy — courting suitors arranged by her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott). As far as Birdy can tell all of this is hogwash. Aislinn has had several miscarriages, and Birdy fears this most recent pregnancy might be her last, and the less said about the prospect of being trapped in marriage the better.
Such is the tension of Catherine Called Birdy, the Amazon Prime comedy adapted and directed by Lena Dunham. The script bears some hallmarks of Dunham’s handiwork (unruly women, throwing themselves against the whole damn system in fitful, often futile but valiant ways). And here it’s well rendered through Ramsey’s Birdy: they manage to capture the impish side of childhood, one that’s silly and obstinate in equal measure. With their performance, they capture a willful 14-year-old in all her glory, uneager to grow up and wishing people would stop hounding her about it.
And between them, Dunham and Ramsey build an arc around a young girl who is really the most dynamic part of her own world. Next to her, the rest of the world seems pretty static and flat. Her dad is the bad guy, greedy enough to sell his own daughter off to the highest bidder. Her mom is sainted, caring and compassionate if a bit distant about Birdy’s coming of age. Her brothers are rapscallions; her friends loyal and true. So much of Catherine Called Birdy is just Birdy’s story that she becomes almost the only person really tasked with an interior arc — which is, sort of, how it feels to be 14 and figuring out your place in the world.
Still, there’s a sense that there could be a bit more to this “young woman seeking independence” story that we’ve seen so much, even (especially?) in the medieval period piece genre. Dunham weaves in the modern sensibility — the way Birdy talks, or the music choices — in a way that’s evocative but not distracting. But there’s not much else to add here, and Birdy’s growth limits her story. Midway through the film, when she’s finally able to see her dad and mom in action as a team, it’s a pivotal turning point, changing her conception of the world, love, marriage, and responsibility. And it’s a shame Catherine Called Birdy couldn’t find more space for that sort of duality, even when told strictly from Birdy’s perspective.
And yet, that’s not really the movie they’re going for. Catherine Called Birdy wants to be a charming YA girl power flick and (if you’re down enough with Dunham’s impulses and can appreciate the confidently solid performance anchoring the whole thing) it’s easy enough to get on board. After all, Birdy is just trying to live her life and figure out this crazy world; while it may be our only chapter with her, that story deserves the space to exist too.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: The best albums of 2022, the conservative “right to post,” a critical look at Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, a look at this year’s Oscar contenders, about those dwindling pandemic savings, and more drama in the House of Windsor.
ZOSHA: Catching up with the story behind “Coffin Flop.” The 15-year-old prankster who grabbed the hot mic with nothing to say. Someone who gets it on Midnights. I reviewed the worst show of the year so you don’t have to watch it.
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