Essay from Jaylan Salah

Elvis and Satine

How Baz Luhrmann’s gaze helps elevate the art of storytelling
Whether a courtesan from the Moulin Rouge renowned for her beauty, or a young Rock’n’Roll singer famous for wiggling, Baz Lurhmann sure knows how to play his heroes; young, naïve, insanely talented and socially inadequate, haunted, and vulnerable.

I watched Moulin Rouge! after Elvis and realized how Baz Luhrmann did not associate normative behavior with gender or sexuality. Satine -the courtesan/the aspiring actress- was a bird that wanted to fly away. And so was Elvis, the beautiful bird who tried to fly away but had no legs and had to stay in the air forever. Both artists to him were from the same mold; creative, beautiful, broken messes, too talented for the world in which they both reigned.

The cryptic pseudo-father figures in their lives drove them to work like elephants running a ball in a stage attraction. Both were mesmerizingly beautiful, haunted, and fragile. Both had many shortcomings, such as their modest backgrounds and inability to make their own decisions. Satine might have been a fictional figment of Baz Luhrmann’s imagination but resembled Elvis, the insanely talented King of Rock’n’Roll whose vicious vampiric manager/employer sucked him dry through a complex of fearing and fancying his talent. At the faintest signs of mutiny, both Satine and Elvis were driven back to submission through threats and psychopathic mind games.

As Satine dreamed of being a serious actress on a stage, all Elvis asked was an outlet for his musical energy. The young Memphis boy -who found salvation in Gospel music and rhythm and blues hits such as That’s Alright Mama by Billy Crudup- was only interested in letting the music flow through him while singing, becoming a force onstage and allowing his creativity to flow. As much as Elvis’s career saw highs and lows, unlike Satine’s which never even commenced, both starstruck artists, beautiful and fragile, broken and sexual, were treated through a sympathetic Baz lens. 

Baz frames two beautiful faces of two aesthetically beautiful actors; Nicole Kidman and Austin Butler. His interest soars at shooting people’s reactions to their mesmerizing sexual power. Female audiences in Elvis and hungry Moulin Rouge male regulars in the latter dominate the screen, seen through a chaos of sounds, motion, and a dolly zoom effect that creates a nauseating yet captivating effect. Baz took these two fragile souls and trapped them in a glass jar, but instead of treating them like lab rats, he made them tell their stories through a chaotic mesh of sounds, colors, and dances. If Satine was the courtesan of the Moulin Rouge, Elvis was the sacrificial lamb of the 50s/60s America. Both films commented on gender, fame, sexuality, and tragedy. While Satine’s employer Harold Ziegler sold her to wealthy men, Elvis’s voice and talent were sold by his greedy manager Colonel Tom Parker to the highest bidder, instead of traveling like the touring musician he was destined to be, Elvis was reduced to a hotel stage performer, a musical attraction in Las Vegas, which Baz adeptly fashioned to be more like the Moulin Rouge, a graveyard for authentic talent, with both young beauties confined to their lonesome rooms when the bell was not ringing, and the curtain rolled down. 

If Satine saw a tragic ending, so did Elvis. Before a time when something such as #FreeBritney was ever possible, the beautiful bird cried for help but no one reached a hand. Satine was no better, she desperately wanted out of a binding contract with a cabaret owner who kept her safe under the false notion that one day she would fly away.

Baz Luhrmann is a highly technical and aesthetic director. But his eye for detail creates the most unbelievable blends of youth and experience. His choice of actors for both films was no whim of luck. Nicole Kidman, the sparkling diamond, was phenomenal, not just for her beauty but for the intensity of emotion she pours into many roles. Nicole had a nervous breakdown after her performance in “A Portrait of a Lady.” Austin Butler was the perfect contemporary to the male alter ego of Satine. The fresh 30-something talent has been known for his California dreamin’ roles, but his intensity in the audition allowed Baz to see a side he nurtured and pushed to the extreme in this biopic. Austin’s body shut down right after production wrapped and he was rushed to the hospital. The young actor’s intensity of emotion was in every movement, every gaze, and in the heartbreaking meltdown scenes.

Many scenes mirrored both divine creatures as otherworldly and mystique. In “Elvis”, it was Colonel Tom Parker’s first sighting of the dazzling Elvis performing “Baby Let’s Play House”, with the camera moving closer to his delicately handsome face, the stage lights creating a halo around him, giving him a larger-than-life saintly aura. In “Moulin Rouge”, it was the first time the poet saw Satine up close, shot from a low angle and zooming on her spectacular face. Both characters’ first scenes appeared in their performance attire, Elvis’s pink suit, and Satine’s sparkling diamond outfit. Satine and Elvis both wiggle, driving crowds crazy and almost causing riots. They dance erotically and mesmerize crowds to their benefit. It’s as if both creatures have to avoid light, not to get too close, or the blazing sun will suck them dry. Baz seldom showed Satine in the daylight. She is mostly bound to the darkness of the cabaret or the blinding lights of the stage. As Elvis progressed and his feet sunk in the life of performing at the Vegas hotels, Baz showed his aversion to lights as a running theme, often described by those around him in attitudes such as always drawing drapes. Baz shot scenes where both would look at the dressing room mirrors or with their stage makeup messed with sweat and tears.

Like Colonel Tom Parker, Harold Ziegler controlled even Satine’s health, hiding information regarding her health only to be dramatically revealed in an orchestrated fashion, while Colonel Tom Parker kept Elvis on a scary medical routine to ensure that he got back onstage at all costs. Harold’s grim “Show must go on” not only explains the heartless nature of show business, but how fragile actors, performers, and artists are while the mega mogul companies behind them are the real masterminds and the ones reaping the profits. Elvis’s and The Colonel’s confrontations give it a more realistic tone, a grim submission far from the dramatic stage ups and downs on Ziegler’s face. Tom Hanks masterfully retains the lifeless, expressionless face even in the times when Elvis was most wildly out of control and fuming, crying for help. Jim Broadbent is as evil as a theater mastermind can be. He performs to the last moment, even when he’s not on stage.

Watching two performers from different eras; one was fictitious and the other historical and larger-than-life that he almost seemed unreal, shot through an understanding and sympathetic lens that was not concerned with their gender was a thrill. Baz Luhrmann’s portrayal of artists is a testament to the power of the lens in a time when art is becoming a consumerist attraction rather than the work of an authentic auteur.

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