JIMFF 2012 Review - THE LAST ELVIS
Seen at the 8th Jecheon International Music & Film Festival (JIMFF).
Whether it be gods, sovereigns, athletes or rock stars, idolatry is something that has pervaded human society at the very least since our civilization's records began. What leads to the fanatical worship that we are almost all guilty of? Among other things, jealousy could be to blame. Be we lacking in riches or power, we often look to others who have acquired them. We may hate these people but just as easily our ire could turn to love, perhaps even devotion. However, this love is akin to self-love as we begin to live vicariously through other people's achievements.
So where does this jealousy come from? We could throw out a few reasons but I think the main culprits are dissatisfaction and disillusionment. The sad fact is that the majority of us may never feel that we have accomplished what we set out to do in our lives. Even those that have achieved what we desire seem to be dissatisfied with their lot. This is an eternal human predicament: we're never happy with what we have. The grass is always greener so to speak. A bold generalization to be sure and while I won't say that it affects us all (though it may very well), the majority of us feel this to some extent.
More than any other film that I saw at Jecheon this year, The Last Elvis really struck a chord with me. Less a film about the King of Rock 'n' Roll than about hero worship and the loss of self, this debut feature from Armando Bo, the writer behind Biutiful (Inarritu is also a producer here), is a devastating look at how one man has decided that he cannot face living life as himself anymore.
Carlos Gutierrez is an Argentine Elvis impersonator who refuses to be referred to by his real name anymore. He works in a factory during the day and tries to be something of a father to his estranged daughter, whose mother doesn't trust him. He's preparing to make a big move but when an accident brings his daughter into his temporary custody, his is forced to rethink his priorities.
In the lead role, John McInerney is something of a revelation. He's an Elvis impersonator in real life and clearly a good one. He sings passionately and his voice is magnificent. However, the real heart of this film lies in his performance off the stage. He ambles about with a cocksure bravado, full of himself in the confident belief that he is indeed the King. McInerney's performance is quiet, subtle and devastating. His demons constantly battle beneath the surface as he allows his fantasy to take over. Throughout much of the film McInerney does not speak but Gutierrez's frequent silences are impregnated with a deep sadness and rich melancholy.
Bo's film is wonderfully staged, never showy but always evocative. The camera frequently and forebodingly lilts through the careful set design. In the opening shot we slowly track through a dark building, up a spiral staircase and into a dank nightclub, slowly spinning around until we are introduced to Gutierrez for the first time, in character, as he emerges from the shadows, full of bluster and confidence. Backstage, following his great show the real Gutierrez looks pallid and tired. His shoulders slouched; he hoists his bag over his shoulder and walks out through the nightclub anonymously. Without his glasses, flares or belt buckle, he no longer exists to the club's patrons: he has become invisible.
At this stage in his life Gutierrez is aggressively trying shelve his own identity as he takes on the King's mantle. One thing I was not sure about was whether he lost his sense of self through his Elvis obsession or if he had already become disillusioned with his life and consciously chose to take on a different persona. Likely it is a combination of both. One thing that is clear, especially at the end, is that this is no not merely a case of obsession. Gutierrez is a lost soul who has all but given up on his own life.
His salvation comes in the form of his daughter. As a father he is loafish and aloof but also loving. Following the events that lead to his spending more time with her, the possibility of a fresh start emerges but can he put his fake identity aside? When it emerges that she has joined the school choir, instead of support her, he offers words of warning: "Show business is tough". Does he say this to save her from what he has become or does he fear anything that could take away the spotlight from the fleeting persona that he so ardently clings to?
A unique and compelling feature, The Last Elvis burrows deep inside of you and asks some big, philosophical questions. It brings us to some of our innermost places: the root of our ego and self-esteem, not to mention the resting place of our crushed hopes and dreams. Though frequently dark and bleak, Bo's film is also a powerful testament to the value of the small pleasures of life. It is a poetic warning that reminds us to appreciate what we already have.
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