Embracing The Spectacle: How ‘Elvis’ and ‘Weird’ Breathe New Life into the Music Biopic
Elvis and Weird Al, two great tastes that taste great together!
Ahhh the Music Biopic. The seemingly unstoppable Oscar-bait genre that rears its head year after year, no matter how stale and “paint by numbers” the plot is or how every song feels like celebrity karaoke. I thought perhaps when Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story released in 2007 that the genre might finally be broken for good. It skewered not just Walk The Line (the Johnny Cash biopic that swept the Oscars two years prior) but the genre as a whole. The parody was so sharp, so devastating, and so funny (not to mention music – which was always pitch perfect) that it seemed there was no way for the biopic to recover.
And yet the biopic, as we saw with Bohemian Rhapsody’s huge success, persisted. The plot was shockingly bland (especially egregious for a story about Freddie Mercury!) and the sound mixing was terrible, but it was heaped with awards and a big fat box office. Unfortunate (to me) because it meant the much more interesting and exciting Elton John pic Rocketman was ignored the following year. For better or worse audiences want to see their favorite rock and roll stars and pop idols on the big screen, to feel the comfort of their favorite songs, to consume an easily digestible, dramatic version of their stars’ lives. And so what are we to do with this frustratingly unkillable genre?
Luhrmann’s Elvis is an opulent spectacle, a fantastical, larger-than-life look at an opulent, larger-than-life persona: Elvis Presley. The film isn’t interested in facts, though it does use them, but in using the trappings of myth-making and stardom to examine mythology as a storytelling device. Austin Butler is absolutely magnetizing as Elvis, and Tom Hanks has finally managed to achieve a thing I never thought possible: a truly monstrous and unlikeable performance as the devilish Colonel Tom. Elvis is less concerned with the “real” Presley, than it is with examining the Faustian tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil to achieve fame and stardom.
Celebrity is fantasy, is storytelling, is selling a product (the actor or musician as “god”). And using the biopic, one of the many devices used to sell the idea of “celebrity,” in order to examine that function, to use the spectacle against itself, Luhrmann exploded the genre. By refusing to create a false pastiche of Elvis’s “real life,” by subverting the notion of an “authentic” experience, Luhrmann is able to present a captivating and insightful look at the very idea of celebrity. Elvis the rockstar was spectacle. The spectacle is the point.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
And then there is Weird. The genius of Weird Al Yankovic is that he takes popular songs, keeps the music, but changes the lyrics to the silliest, simplest topic he can think of. He isn’t interested in satirizing the original musician, or skewering the thematic content of the song, but instead uses the music to expound upon such varying topics as: bologna sandwiches, rocky road ice cream, and Star Wars. The humor comes from the clash between the hugeness of the song and the mundanity of the lyrics. This clash of celebrity and normalcy encapsulates his entire career (the nice, dorky guy as a pop idol) which is why Weird, co-written and directed by Eric Appel, is so perfect.
It takes the exact structure of a standard music biopic (except for the explosive third act) from the blue collar father who doesn’t understand his son’s love of music, to the self-destructive descent into addiction and alienation of his bandmates and friends. And then they insert Weird Al (played by a brilliant Daniel Radcliffe) and his music. The nice guy and ultimate “square.” In doing so it creates a metacommentary on the nature of Weird Al’s long-lasting success, stardom, and the genre of the biopic. It applies the structure of Yankovic’s parodies to film and it creates something surprisingly fresh and exciting.
It’s 2022 and perhaps it is finally time to accept that certain genres have more longevity than we might hope for, but if the world isn’t completely destroyed by climate catastrophes in the next few years, hopefully we can see more films (like Elvis and Weird) that subvert the old structures and use them to reveal something exciting and new.
(Images: Warner Bros/Funny or Die/Roku)
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