Review: “Arseholes on Cocaine” by The Couple in Seats A1 and A2, Manchester Apollo, Nov 2 2022. Also some bloke called Dylan

Crossposted from https://www.patreon.com/posts/74179692

Last night I was privileged enough to be only one row away from greatness, as I witnessed one of the most profoundly inventive pieces of performance art I’ve ever encountered, a portrayal of entitled narcissism unrivaled by anything I’ve seen in any medium — a piece called “Arseholes on Cocaine” by The Couple In Seats A1 And A2.
Normally, row GG in the circle of the Manchester Apollo is not the best place to sit, being as it is quite far away from the stage, but this performance took place from the seats themselves, just one row behind us, as this extraordinary work of experimental drama unfolded. The theatrical troupe managed to evoke every possible negative emotion, with pinpoint accuracy — anger, annoyance, irritation, revulsion, boredom — sometimes bringing them all up at once. 
The technique was simple. They waited until an accomplice (one Bob Dylan) got on the stage and started singing, at which point they started talking, loudly, about whatever inane thought came into their head. Their reactions to the subtleties of what was going on on stage were extraordinary — the way that every time the music got even slightly quieter, they would raise their voices even louder, is the kind of thing that must have taken decades of practice, yet they performed so naturalistically that it might have been improvised, had one not known better. 
But no, nobody could improvise such a nuanced character study of antisocial narcissistic entitlement. Some of the elements might perhaps have been a little too on the nose — like asking “Why?!” when politely shushed by my date after twenty minutes or so — and the ridiculous bumfluff facial hair worn by the male actor (whose name I sadly didn’t catch) which made him look just that little too much like a bad stereotype of the worst human being you could ever hope to encounter. But other things were spot-on, like the way they ramped up the tension by leaving for a fifteen-minute interval, during which the musical performance continued, before coming back even louder than before just when the audience thought it could relax.
Their show ended with an audience-interaction piece, in which having performed the whole night as disruptive entitled audience members, they turned the tables and yelled at my date for obstructing their view as she got up to go to the toilet, physically shoving her for daring to mildly disrupt their own evening. Shortly thereafter they were escorted out by a team of security people, and the last fifteen minutes or so of the show was just their accomplice on stage, singing with a band.
Luckily, that singer turned out to be quite good.
Bob Dylan has a reputation for giving very varied live performances over the years, led more by his own eccentricities than by anything the audience might want — Paul McCartney, when talking about his own shows, always talks about how he’s guided by trying to be different from Dylan, giving “When I go and see Dylan performing, I want to hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone'” as his reason for always doing “Hey Jude”, “Yesterday”, and so on.
Which is a reasonable choice, and certainly the three times I’ve seen McCartney live I came away delighted, having got exactly what I wanted from the experience. And if I’m lucky enough to see him again, I’m sure I’ll have the same reaction.
And yet, as pleased as I was with those shows, and as the audiences were, I don’t think I have ever been in an audience that was as enthusiastic as the Dylan audience were yesterday. Not on Brian Wilson’s first Smile tour, not watching Pulp’s career-making headlining slot at Glastonbury in 1995, not seeing Leonard Cohen’s comeback tour in 2008, not at any of those McCartney gigs. This was an audience that was genuinely ecstatic — and for a show where Dylan didn’t do “Like a Rolling Stone”. Nor did he do “Blowin’ in the Wind”, or “Just Like a Woman” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “It Ain’t Me Babe” or “All Along the Watchtower” or “Positively 4th Street” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” or “Idiot Wind” or any of the other songs on which his reputation was built.
Nor did he speak to the audience, other than saying “Thank you very much” in a rather surprised tone about half-way through the set (I think after performing “To be Alone With You”)  and introducing the band members before the last song. He did, twice, come out from behind the piano and move towards a mic at the centre of the stage, but both times he didn’t speak, just stood there for a second so the audience could get a good look at him, before moving back behind the upright piano at which he was performing all night.
That’s not to say his back catalogue was ignored, of course. He played exactly the same set he’s played, with no variations (other than for example doing a Jerry Lee Lewis cover at one show last week after Lewis’ death), at every show so far this year. Seventeen songs, lit from below (with disco-floor lighting which blacked out after every song, so every new song started in darkness). 
Those songs included the bulk of his most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is one of those albums by an aged artist that gets called a return to form, though in fact Dylan has had a streak of those over the last quarter-century, most of them actually as good as his work from his youth, unlike similar “returns to form” from his contemporaries. But they also included seven songs from his earlier work — none of them the massive hits, but all songs that people at all familiar with his catalogue past the major hits will know, things like “Watching the River Flow”, “To be Alone With You”, and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”.
Those second-tier hits were, though, rearranged to the point of unrecognisability, as is Dylan’s wont. At one point, my companion asked me quietly why the audience was suddenly applauding so loudly — it was because he’d sung the line “You Gotta Serve Somebody” and they’d realised en masse that for the last minute they’d been listening to a song they knew, rather than one they didn’t recognise.
Those rearrangements, though, would only be a problem if you were going along purely to recognise songs and congratulate yourself on the recognition. As music, they were generally excellent, though there was one point at which Dylan’s eccentric phrasing and piano playing seemed even to throw the exceptionally tight band backing him (whose names I sadly didn’t catch) — on the second song, “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”, they seemed to get a little lost and came to a rather confused ending, and I worried that we would be in for one of the legendarily bad gigs that Dylan has occasionally performed in the past.
But instead, the rest of the set struck the perfect balance between fluid improvisation and tight control, with an extraordinarily good band who were clearly steeped in Western Swing and the borderlines between country, blues, and jazz. At brief points when the pedal-steel guitarist/multi-instrumentalist (he also played some small fretted instrument, with his back to the audience so I couldn’t tell what it was, and which was curiously amplified with effects applied — my best guess is that it was an electric ukulele but it could have been a mandolin or something else of similar size) switched to violin the sound was very reminiscent of Grapelli and Reinhardt. 
For the most part, the songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways were played virtually identically to the record, with no variations in phrasing or arrangement, while the older songs were completely unrecognisable, but they all worked as a sustained show, keeping a consistent mood throughout, and also bringing up parallels between the old and new material. For example, I’d, like most people who’ve thought about it, thought of “Crossing the Rubicon” in terms of the classical allusions in the lyric, the way it’s about looking back on his life, the blues influences, and when it comes to its live performances also as an oblique comment on the war in Ukraine.
But hearing it as part of the same set as “Watching the River Flow”, what struck me is that the two songs have the same lyrical structure — an eight-line verse ending in a repeat of the title — both are blueses, though “Crossing the Rubicon” is a standard twelve-bar while “Watching the River Flow” varies the structure a little, and both have references to a river in the title, though the early song is passive while the later is active. I have no idea what this means, if it means anything at all, but it suggests to me that the two songs are connected in Dylan’s mind.
The other thing that struck me about Dylan’s performance — something that nobody else has commented on — is that even the stance that Dylan takes at the piano is resonant with the newish album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is a record that’s about many things, but one of the many things it’s about is Dylan looking back at his pre-fame youth, and he does this in part with constant references in the lyrics to the popular music of his youth. “A red Cadillac and a black moustache”, “Pink pedal-pushers”, “Hello Mary Lou/Hello Miss Pearl”, “You can bring it to Jerome”, “you’re a travelling man”, “I go where only the lonely can go”. Sun Records and Ricky Nelson and the rest have risen to the same place in his vocabulary as Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the classical writers he’s increasingly referenced in recent years.
And of course the single biggest influence on Dylan of all those performers was Little Richard — he famously said in his High School yearbook that he intended to join Little Richard’s band, and the cover of his just-released book, The Philosophy of Modern Song (which I’ve bought but not yet read) is a photo from Little Richard’s famous 1957 Australian tour showing Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Alis Lesley “the female Elvis Presley”.
And where piano-based performers of Dylan’s approximate generation — people like Elton John, Brian Wilson, Billy Joel, or Leon Russell (who also gets namechecked in a Rough and Rowdy Ways lyric) will tend to sit at a grand piano, Dylan instead is performing stood upright for almost the entire show, behind an upright piano, in a stance that reminded me very, very, very much of Little Richard.
Supposedly the reason Dylan is using a piano more on stage rather than playing a guitar is because he has back problems and can’t stand up for long periods, and as someone with similar problems I can sympathise if that’s the case, and it’s not impossible that he was sat on an extremely high stool — the piano was facing front so nobody could see his legs at all — but I didn’t notice any change in his height between most of the parts where he was at the piano and the parts where he came out front briefly, and everything else about his posture — the slight hunched position, but with arms extended straight down rather than bent at the shoulder or elbow — suggested someone playing standing up a la Little Richard, just in terms of how one would move one’s arms. There were occasional moments, too, where his head went much lower, and so I would assume he was sitting down for those, but standing up otherwise.
I could be wrong — I was in the circle, towards the back, though the Apollo is a relatively small theatre and so I still had a decent view — but I’m fairly firmly of the opinion that what I saw was Dylan consciously emulating the stance of a musician who has clearly been on his mind.
Dylan is in fine voice these days — he has a rasp in his voice now that’s very reminiscent of Willie Nelson, or late-period Leonard Cohen, but that just adds to the atmosphere — and the reviews of this tour have been remarkably consistent. You get the same show, performed in the same way, with the same setlist every night.
Even though in the penultimate song of every show, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, he sings:
You won’t amount to much, the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes, throw ’em in the crowd
He clearly is, in his own way, giving the audience what they want. The most notoriously mercurial, inconsistent, artist of his generation, a man who for much of his career was known for deliberately antagonising audiences with his unpredictability, is now doing a show which is utterly predictable, a show full of songs that everyone in the audience will know (assuming they’ve bought Rough and Rowdy Ways, and it went to number one on the charts and made every “best albums of 2020” list, so one can assume they have) performed in the same order every night, but with the appearance of being a set that misses the obvious songs, so people like me can stroke our beards in satisfaction at being pleased by non-crowd-pleasers.
But the thing is, as McCartney knows full well, if you give the audience what they want, they go away happy. Dylan didn’t let off fireworks or have us all singing “na na na na na na na”, just as he didn’t strip topless and jump into the audience like Little Richard or set his piano on fire like Jerry Lee, but he did give a performance that left everyone moved, and thoughtful, and applauding uproariously in an ovation that lasted several minutes, begging for an encore that of course never came.
Just a shame that for so much of the show he was overshadowed, at least in the seats close to mine, by that other performance

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Elvis Film Review

Again, the devil took him to a very high Ferris wheel and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will wear a tuxedo and sing to a Basset hound. These are the only things that help – these tablets”

There is a tendency in pretty much every film with a male protagonist that the filmmakers want us to see as heroic, to try to create parallels with the life of Jesus. That’s certainly been the case with most of the previous dramatisations of Elvis Presley’s life — he’s portrayed as a Messianic figure, come to save a fallen world with the power of rock and roll, at least when he isn’t portrayed as a dumb hick who happens to have been blessed with a talent he didn’t understand, and which he squandered while destroying his own life.


Often those two portrayals have been simultaneous ones in the same film — portraying Presley as an idiot savant who could do precisely one thing, which was being a hip-swinging rock and roll rebel, but who was otherwise not really a fully-rounded human being, not a human being at all. He was God or Devil, but what he definitely wasn’t was a human being.

Baz Luhrmann’s new film, paradoxically because it is so stylised, so obsessed with myth and story rather than with accurate portrayal of reality, comes closer than any other fictionalised portrayal I’ve seen of Elvis’ life to actually portraying the real human being, as I understand him to have been from the books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve seen. It doesn’t avoid Messianic portrayals altogether, but Elvis-as-Jesus is only the third layer of the character. The second, higher, layer, is something close to the real person as he seems to have existed. And the top layer, of course, is Captain Marvel Jr. — Luhrmann has taken Elvis’ real-life love of and identification with the character, and has used it to cast Elvis as the lead of a superhero film, which in these times of Marvel-dominance of the cinema was probably a good commercial idea as well as showing far more understanding of Elvis as a person than any of the many previous portrayals seem to.

But while Luhrmann’s Elvis is both a superhero and a nuanced human being, his Colonel Tom Parker, through whose eyes we see the whole film, is much less nuanced. He is, put simply, the literal Devil. Put slightly less simply, he is the Devil as he might have been portrayed by Orson Welles.

This is one of the few things about this film that surprised me, something that wasn’t signposted in the trailers, which otherwise gave a perfect idea of what the film was going to be like — the film is heavily intertextual, and most of the intertexts for it are given away in the trailer, but the trailer doesn’t say just how much this film is very specifically riffing on the work of Orson Welles. The Colonel’s death scene, at the very beginning of the film, evokes Citizen Kane, as do some of the shots of Graceland, but there’s also a scene in a hall of mirrors that’s clearly meant to make viewers think of The Lady of Shanghai, while there’s a Ferris wheel scene that will of course bring back memories of The Third Man (while both the Ferris wheel and the hall of mirrors are clearly appropriate for the Colonel’s carnie background). Stretching a point a bit, Tom Hanks’ fatsuit and makeup as Colonel Parker do make him look very like the real man, but they also reminded me at least of Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

Now, this is appropriate in a lot of ways — Elvis’ life is in some ways very, very, similar to the basic story of Citizen Kane, and it’s even closer to the life of Orson Welles — a preternaturally talented young man revolutionises an entertainment medium with his early masterpieces, but gets trapped in bad contracts and grows ever fatter and more depressed, while creating occasional further masterpieces mixed with embarrassing hackwork that no artist of his stature should have to create.

So, the basic narrative of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis film can boil down to the following:

The Devil, in the form of Charles Foster Kane, comes to Freddie Freeman and offers him a proposition — he can have all the powers of Captain Marvel, and he will also be rich; he will never have to be poor or hungry again. But what he doesn’t tell Freeman is that in this Faustian pact, Freeman will have to live the life that Kane would have lived. For as long as Freddie Freeman is alive, he will be rich and powerful and beloved, but he will also suffer for Kane’s sins, becoming like the picture in Kane’s attic, and only when Freeman dies will Kane feel once again start to receive consequences for his own
actions.

This is, as one might imagine, a rather richer set of driving metaphors for the story than most Elvis biopics have used, and the result is a far better piece of filmmaking. 

Which is, to be honest, something that is not normally a consideration when it comes to biopics of musicians. I have seen many of these, and I can think of precisely two music biopics that work as films — this and Love and Mercy. In every other case, you could just replace the film with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and nobody would be able to tell the difference — they’re all forcing the narrative into precisely the same structure, and mix characters reciting huge chunks of expository dialogue lifted almost word-for-word from their source material with contrived drama that bears no relation to the musician’s real life.

Now, the script for Luhrmann’s film does definitely do some of the expository dialogue stuff — so much so that I can tell exactly which books Luhrmann and his co-writers were referring to when writing the script (they seem to have read Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis, his biography of Elvis up to 1960, but not bothered with his sequel Careless Love for the post-Army years, switching instead to Alanna Nash’s The Colonel, with possibly a little of Priscilla Presley’s Elvis and Me thrown in). But where most biopics are going for realism, and so characters spouting their biographies at each other makes them seem unrealistic, Luhrmann is going for a heightened reality, both extra-diegetically in that this is an extremely stylised, cartoonish, film, and diegetically in that the entire film is the Colonel’s vision while on a morphine drip in his final hours of life. No attempt is made to pretend that if you had a film camera in Tupelo in 1940 or Memphis in 1955 or LA in 1968 or Las Vegas in 1973, what that camera would have captured is anything like what you see on screen, and so you’re not annoyed when people burst into “as you know, your father the King…” style dialogue.

So it’s successful as a film in ways that are unexpected given the genre, in that it actually is a watchable film. There are still problems which come along with the genre — a friend described it as “the longest trailer in history”, because when you’re condensing a forty-two-year life into two and three quarter hours, you’re essentially going to have to have a highlights reel rather than a narrative, and at the same time it also sags in the middle if you’re not super-invested in Elvis’ life because two and three quarter hours isn’t a long time when compared to someone’s life but it is a long time to sit still in a cinema — but it is a film that works as a piece of cinema in a way that almost all biopics just don’t.

 But is it successful as a film about Elvis?

That is, of course, something that everyone will have to judge for themselves, and in order to give my own perspective, it’s best if people know where I’m coming from, because levels of Elvis fandom vary dramatically. In my case, I’m a serious Elvis fan, but Elvis isn’t one of the central fandoms in my life, and nor am I someone who makes Elvis fandom a defining factor of my identity, in the way some people are. (I was one of those people from the ages of about seven through ten, but I haven’t been for thirty-something years).

To give an idea of where I am in relation to Elvis fandom, there are roughly four lines of Elvis CDs put out by Sony, the company that now owns the rights to all Elvis’ recordings. There’s the stuff that gets heavy promotional pushes and that you find in supermarkets promoted as Christmas gifts or whatever — the latest iteration of the greatest hits compilation, those albums where they get the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to overdub new backing tracks on his old records, the various versions of his Christmas album. 

Then there’s the basic back catalogue stuff that’s sold to what you might call casual fans — major albums like Elvis is Back! and the Aloha From Hawaii live album, the Sun Sessions compilations, the compilation that was done for the documentary The Searcher, that kind of thing. Stuff where if you buy it you’re definitely an Elvis fan by most standards, but you aren’t digging very deep. 

Then there’s the Legacy Editions of his albums — two-to-four disc sets containing albums plus selected outtakes and studio sessions, often paired with contemporary live recordings. A typical example of these is the Legacy Edition of Elvis Today, his last wholly-studio-recorded album, which has the original release of the ten-song album, plus rough mixes of every song before the overdub sessions for the strings and horns and so on, plus a twenty-two-song bonus live album made up of the best recordings from his May/June 1975 tour. These are aimed at serious music listeners, people who are interested in hearing the creative process, but don’t necessarily want to hear every fart and burp from the sessions, just the interesting bits. 

And then there’s Follow That Dream, a collectors’ label devoted only to Elvis recordings, which puts out things like a Girl Happy Sessions CD, for people who think “Do The Clam” or “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” are such masterpieces that they need to hear a comprehensive audio document of the sessions for that film soundtrack, or a Fun in Acapulco Sessions 3-CD set, for anyone who desperately wants nineteen takes of “The Bullfighter Was a Lady” (sadly that set only contains one take of “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car”). 

I’m solidly a Legacy Editions-level fan. I find Elvis’ working process fascinating, and love hearing his interplay with musicians (and for most of his career he was working with some of the best musicians in the US, whether the Nashville A-Team, the Wrecking Crew, the American Sound studio group or his own TCB Band), but only when he’s engaged with the material, and I don’t really want to hear the “Yoga is as Yoga Does” sessions any time soon. I own about twenty Elvis films on DVD, but only ever really watch about five of them, and would generally rather stick on Elvis on Tour or That’s The Way it Is than any of the narrative films.

So this means I have, I believe, a good grounding in Elvis’ career, enough to appreciate what Luhrmann is doing, but enough distance that I’m not going to be mortally offended by choices that are made to tell the story better. I’m the kind of fan who knows that when Elvis talks to “Glen” in the rehearsals for his 1969 shows that that’s inaccurate because Glen Hardin didn’t join the TCB Band until the second set of Vegas shows, but who can’t remember off the top of his head who the 1969 piano player was, and who appreciates Hardin getting a shout-out anyway, rather than being annoyed that Larry Muhoberac (I looked him up) doesn’t get namechecked. 

From this perspective, the first thing that needs to be talked about is Austin Butler’s performance. Now, straight away, there are things that are immediately noticeable — Butler simply does not look like Elvis. This is not Butler’s fault — Elvis was a preternaturally attractive human being, so much so that even I, someone who both has no visual aesthetic sense at all and who is extremely straight, a combination which usually means that I literally cannot tell what it is that people find attractive in men, at least see that about Elvis even if I don’t find him attractive myself. Elvis also had a natural charm and magnetism that Butler simply does not have, but which again almost no performers have. 

I’ve seen several people joke on Twitter, “wow, he really does look exactly like Shakin’ Stevens” and… frankly, yeah, he looks quite a lot like Shakin’ Stevens, a man who first rose to prominence playing Elvis in a stage musical, and who copied a great deal of his style from Elvis, but who was fundamentally a more ordinary-looking person. That’s about the best you can hope for in a situation like this, though.

Vocally, though, he has Elvis’ speaking voice down eerily close. He gets the nuances, not just of Elvis’ voice, but of how it changed from one period of his life to another. He manages to do as good an impersonation of Elvis’ speaking voice as I’ve heard, and to give a decent acting performance in that voice, not just do the impersonation.

His singing voice is not quite that close — they use Butler’s voice for scenes set in the 1950s where Elvis is singing, because there were no multitracks for those sessions from which his voice could be isolated. For sixties and seventies scenes, they use the real performances. Now, Butler doesn’t sound exactly like Elvis vocally, but he does sound like a fairly decent Elvis impersonator, like Ronnie McDowell (the man who did the Elvis vocals for most film biopics and TV series about Elvis in the seventies, eighties, and nineties) or Jimmy “Orion” Elvis (who was the source for most of the “Elvis is alive” conspiracy theories, as he performed in an Elvis-esque costume, with a mask covering his face, and publicity that strongly hinted he was the real Elvis who had faked his own death). No-one who’s hugely familiar with the records will mistake him for Elvis, but very casual listeners easily could.

But what really got me is how well he managed to get Elvis’ microexpressions and body language down. Large chunks of this film are recreations of live performances I know very well — there are a lot of shot-for-shot recreations of bits of the 68 Comeback Special, That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour. I’m extremely familiar with those (especially That’s The Way It Is, which is a concert documentary up there with The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense) and Butler nails every single gesture, every micro-expression, every bit of body language — and does so without it looking like he’s recreating something. It’s so close and natural, it makes me think of, of all things, Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which a writer sets out to write the whole of Don Quixote, word for word, identical to the book Cervantes wrote, but as an original piece from his own imagination. (The whole film has a Borgesian quality to it, in fact, in ways it’s hard for me to pin down in a relatively short review).

I’ve mentioned Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic, before, and that’s a film which has a number of similarities to this one, but one of them is that both have central performances that capture the person being imitated spookily well, but so spookily that anyone who is not a big fan of the central character won’t realise how good it is, because it just looks like naturalistic acting. John Cusack is Brian Wilson in the eighties sections of Love and Mercy, and in the same way Austin Butler is Elvis at points. I’ve seen several people talking about this as an Oscar-worthy performance, and it is, but I don’t think it will get the recognition it deserves. Because if you see Butler as Elvis in a jumpsuit goofing around on stage doing karate moves, or dancing to the drummer, you just think “that’s someone doing Elvisy stuff” — it’s what you expect from a performance by someone playing Elvis. It’s only if you’re intimately familiar with the footage being imitated that you think “ah, yes, and now he’s going to gesture with his little finger” and then see him gesture with his little finger, or whatever. 

I think what Butler does at points is comparable in his use of facial microexpressions and details of body language to what Tatiana Maslany does in Orphan Black. There’s no higher praise possible.

But I do have some critiques of the film, and one of them connects to the other major performer in the film, so let’s talk about Tom Hanks for a bit. Now, I’ve seen Hanks’ performance come in for some criticism, and I think for the most part that’s rather undeserved. Hanks isn’t playing the real Colonel Tom Parker, but he is absolutely doing a good job of playing a real-life embodiment of absolute evil, someone very, very, different from the kind of character with which he has made his name in the past. The accent is unrealistic at points, but it’s meant to be how the Colonel remembered events while on morphine, and it’s entirely plausible that he would remember himself as speaking with a stronger accent than he really did.

My problem, rather, is with the fat-suit he wears. Quite simply, we should not be making thin people look like fat people, rather than just casting fat people in those roles. It makes sense that they do this with Butler at the very end of the film — Elvis’ weight changed dramatically over the decades he was in the public eye, and you can’t have the same actor play him at every weight without some form of prosthetics. But it’s disrespectful to actual fat people to cast thin people in roles where they have to be made up as fat throughout. 

I have to admit that I couldn’t think of anyone of the appropriate size who could have played the part and who was well-known enough to be cast in the role — which is a problem in itself — but then I was talking on the phone with my ex, who mentioned John Goodman, and Goodman would actually have been perfect casting for the role. Not only is he the right body type already, but he is very, very, capable of playing Satanic characters who can go from being utterly charming sales people with the gift of gab to being utter monsters — his performances in Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are very much the kind of performance Hanks is giving.

I suspect that the studio insisted on a star of Hanks’ calibre before approving the film, and he does do a fine job, but it’s a shame. It didn’t spoil the film for me though.

But it adds to a general air of… awkwardness… around size and body type in the film, which I felt most keenly when watching the actor cast as Big Mama Thornton. Willie Mae Thornton was very fat, and that was a defining part of her presence, and also a big reason why she was never as successful as she deserved to be, and the actor cast in that role simply doesn’t look anything like her. Oddly, the actor cast as Sister Rosetta Tharpe does look quite like Thornton, and the problem could have been solved by swapping the casting around — Tharpe was also fat for most of her life, but not in the same defining way as Thornton was, and she was relatively slender during the 1940s.

And that leads into the other major issue I have with the film, race — and here I think there were absolutely no good options for how to deal with this, and Luhrmann chooses the least bad option. 

Any honest film about Elvis has to deal with the perception that he stole Black people’s music. Now, that perception is simply false — there is an argument to be made that he was culturally appropriative, but even that’s more nuanced than one might expect, but the common Twitter take is that Elvis just stole a bunch of Black people’s songs, which is flat-out untrue.

But what is true is that a lot of Black musicians influenced him a great deal — musicians portrayed in the film, like Mahalia Jackson, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B.B. King, Little Richard, Arthur Crudup, Rufus Thomas, and Fats Domino, and musicians who are not portrayed in the film like the Ink Spots, Roy Hamilton, and Chuck Berry. (A tiny bit of silent footage of Berry is seen in the film, but he’s not named and I don’t think we hear any of his music, though I could be misremembering). 

Now, the film makes what I think is the correct choice to portray that influence, and indeed to overemphasise it to an extent — watching the film you would think that the only music Elvis liked was Black blues and gospel, when in fact he was a voracious listener to all kinds of music, and loved what is euphemistically called Southern Gospel (by which is meant gospel made by white people), country music (especially Red Foley and the Louvin Brothers), mainstream pop singers like Dean Martin and Kay Starr, and the light opera of Mario Lanza. None of that is mentioned in the film except in the most roundabout of ways, but I think that’s a reasonable position.

The problem is, it’s still a film centred around a white man, and he’s the protagonist of the story, so all the Black characters are relegated to the fringes of the story. On top of that, Luhrmann is a very stylised, hyper-real, filmmaker, and so his portrayals of Black culture tend to caricature and possibly almost to minstrelsy, in the same way as, say, the Black characters in The Blues Brothers (another film I love which has a well-meaning but problematic attitude to Black culture and music, and to which this also bears some resemblance).


Most of the Black characters aren’t characters at all — they’re just there as musical influences, which is fair enough as I think there are in total ten characters who count as characters in any real way at all — Elvis, the Colonel, Elvis’ parents, Priscilla, Steve Binder (the producer of the 68 Comeback Special), Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers Snow, Senator Jim Eastland and B.B. King. And there’s a huge gap between Elvis, the Colonel, and Elvis’ parents and the other five characters. By being given big musical sequences, the Black characters are still given more screen time and more characterisation than anyone other than the Colonel who didn’t have the surname Presley.

But still, this does mean that these figures are marginalised in the story of a white man. And the problem becomes worse with B.B. King, the only Black character to get a significant speaking role. The nature of a film like this means that every character becomes either an antagonist (like the white supremacist Senator Eastland, or Hank Snow, who is rather unfairly portrayed here) or a source of emotional support for the protagonist, and in the case of King, who knew Elvis in his early years when he was just starting out, that means his role is to give him a couple of pep talks, which basically turns him into what Spike Lee refers to as a “Magical Negro”, the Black character who is better and wiser than the white person he advises and solves the white character’s important problems. 

Now, again, I see no better possibility for dealing with this while still doing a film about Elvis. You have the choice of either not acknowledging Black musicians at all, or of marginalising them and thus reproducing in part the injustices that led to them being marginalised in pop culture in the first place. As I know all too well from doing my own podcast, it is literally impossible to do even the most well-intentioned look at the major pop-cultural figures of rock music history, and comment on the factors that led to the rise of white stars well above the Black musicians who influenced them, without reproducing that historical injustice at least somewhat. All one can do is be aware of that, and I think the film does, at least as much as any mainstream Hollywood film can.

The final issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t engage, at all, with the fact that Priscilla Presley was only fourteen when Elvis, who was twenty-four, started dating her. Now, I can completely understand the desire not to touch that with a bargepole, because whatever excuses one makes, the fact is that this is what we would now call grooming, and it’s the single most distasteful and reprehensible thing about Elvis’ life (and something I’m going to have to try to deal with myself in an upcoming podcast episode). People aren’t defined by their worst actions any more than they are by their best, and I can see how it would both completely unbalance the film to deal with it and it would cause more than a little discomfort to Priscilla (who is still alive and was by all accounts very involved in the film, and who doesn’t from her public statements consider herself to have been abused, which makes the issue all the thornier), but given that part of the point of the film seems to have been to rehabilitate Elvis’ reputation in the social media age, and the two big problems with that reputation are “he stole Black people’s music” and “he was a paedophile”, I think it would have been much better to face the issue head on. 

This is another thing that has to be dealt with when dealing with most of the major male stars of the middle of the last century, and is sadly another way that any film positioning one of them as the protagonist is bound to reproduce social injustices. Real people are complicated and messy and do awful, even unforgivable, things which are accepted in their society, in a way that isn’t — that can’t be — true of protagonists of this kind of narrative.

All of which sounds like I think the film was bad. I very much don’t. I think it’s a film that appeals more to actual Elvis fans than it will to non-fans, but I think non-fans will get some enjoyment out of it. I went to see the film twice, the second time with someone who’s not a fan but who was interested. She enjoyed it but got a little restless around the two hour mark, and some of the criticisms I’ve made affected her more than they do me, but she was still glad she saw it. 

For me, the thing that the film gets very, very, very right, which almost overwhelms all my other criticisms of it, is the way it — for the first and only time in one of these fictionalised versions of Elvis’ life — portrays Elvis as a creative artist, not merely as some sort of passive vessel through which the spirit of rock and roll moved or something, and in particular the way it portrays the Las Vegas shows not as some sort of descent into terrible music, but as a culmination of Elvis’ creative life. The scenes of him pulling together the arrangements, directing the musicians, are astonishing. Some of them are repurposed from documentary footage — a lot of the Vegas years film is shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour, sometimes occasionally with a sneaky bit of real footage thrown in for a couple of frames — while other bits aren’t things I recognise, but absolutely have the ring of real behaviour. 

What you get from this film is the same reading of the Vegas years that I have — that even while everything in Elvis’ personal life was deteriorating, even while he was being forced to play far more shows than he wanted to play, and was losing interest in the performance side of things, he was absolutely in control of the band, and of his music, and was making music he loved. Watching Butler as Elvis interacting with the actor playing Ronnie Tutt, the film perfectly replicating the way that Tutt took direction from Elvis’ movements, is an absolute joy to behold.

And then there’s the ending, and this sums up what I think the film got very, very right. There’s a piece of footage of Elvis on his last tour, singing “Unchained Melody”, which I have spoken about a lot in the past. It’s a bit of footage most Elvis fans know, but few outside the fandom are aware of. I’ve written about it before on here, but I linked to it on my podcast’s Twitter account in a thread in February. I won’t reproduce the whole thread here, but it’s about how Elvis was clearly physically broken but still giving his all in the performance and showing the utter triumph of overcoming his weakened body to make great music. I ended the thread with “I honestly think that if the Elvis estate want to make Elvis seem relevant to anyone under about sixty, that is the footage they should be using. Like I say, it’s like Johnny Cash doing “Hurt”. And I get chills every time I see it.”

A couple of months after I tweeted that, the trailer for Luhrmann’s film dropped, and it used that performance in the soundtrack. And then in the film itself, to end the film they reproduce the first half of that performance with Butler, then cut away to some archive footage of the real Elvis, then cut back to the end of that performance, footage of the real man the film has been about. It works astonishingly in the film, and it’s exactly the choice I would have made.

And that, ultimately, is why I’ve focused so much on the things I wouldn’t have done here. Because a lot of the choices this film makes are exactly the ones I would have made if I were a big-budget filmmaker. The film is so laser-focused on my personal interests that I can’t be objective about it — Orson Welles! Seventies Elvis! Old superhero comics! Sister Rosetta Tharpe!

It’s the best possible film I can imagine being made about its subject. It’s a flawed film about a flawed man living in a flawed society, and its flaws are those that come from making a film about that topic at all. I’ve certainly been guilty of similar flaws in my own podcasts and writing on Elvis (not the same flaws, because they’re different media, and there’s no such thing as a story outside of the medium in which it’s told, which shapes everything, but comparable ones).

As for Elvis himself… He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Forgotten Lives

Today I received an email with the final finished version of this, so thought today would be a good day to tell people about it. Forgotten Lives is an unofficial Doctor Who anthology, not licensed by the BBC but with all proceeds going to Alzheimer’s research.

It’s published by Obverse Books, and features the adventures of the Morbius Doctors — the Doctors before William Hartnell, whose faces were seen in the Tom Baker story The Brain of Morbius and more recently in the Jodie Whitaker story The Timeless Children.

Obverse Books, for those of you who don’t know, is a small press that specialises in Doctor Who spinoffs and non-fiction about science fiction TV — they’ve previously published a novel, two nonfiction books, two short stories, and some contributions to other charity anthologies by me. As well as my own story, “The Cross of Venus”, the book contains stories by Simon Bucher-Jones, Philip Purser-Hallard (who edited), Kara Dennison, Lance Parkin, Aditya Bidakar, Jay Eales, and Paul Driscoll. All of these are excellent writers, and most of them are friends or at least friendly online acquaintances of mine. All gave their stories for free.

There’s only a single print-run, and only a handful of copies are left, so go to https://obversebooks.co.uk/product/forgotten/ if you don’t want to miss out.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why I Think Elvis Was Autistic

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for several years, but it’s one that’s fraught with difficulties, because I’m going to attempt here to apply a label to a historical figure, and specifically a label that is often medicalised.

There is a big taboo about applying diagnostic labels to people one hasn’t met, and for good reason — too often this is used as a way of simultaneously reducing the person you’re talking about to a medical label, and it’s also often a way to increase stigma against an innocent group. I’ve seen a lot of people, for example, claim that Donald Trump has dementia and that explains aspects of his Presidency. But there are tens of millions of people in the world with dementia, none of whom are Donald Trump. Unless you’re Trump’s doctor, statements about his health are there to serve a political agenda, not to provide accurate information.

But in the case of neurodivergence, I think there’s an important purpose that is served by highlighting historical figures who one thinks may have been neurodivergent. Almost every month we see a new film or TV series, created by neurotypicals, presenting stereotypes of autism in particular. Those stereotypes lead to many, many people going without diagnosis, because they believe that autism is something very different from their own experiences. The stereotypes also lead to the murder of many autistic people.

To get past those stereotypes, we need to show real autistic people’s lives. But there’s a problem with that — autism is a relatively new diagnosis, and even for the first few decades of its existence it was underdiagnosed in children and not diagnosed at all in adults. I’m autistic, I’ve known I was autistic since I was sixteen, but I couldn’t get a formal diagnosis until this year — I’m forty-two.

Autism is still underdiagnosed, especially in women and people of colour, but that goes even more for anyone born before 1990 or so. Basically, no autistic people born before then have ever been diagnosed. But we have always existed, and it’s important that people understand that.

But there’s a problem with identifying historical autistic people, and that problem is another one that affects people today. The official diagnostic criteria for autism are created by neurotypical people, and speak entirely in terms of deficiencies. While it’s true that autism is disabling, it’s also true that most of the ways that autistic people experience autism, and most of the things we consider important about our lives, are not captured by those diagnostic tests.

And that means I can expect two different reactions to this. I expect most neurotypical people reading this to react in much the same way as historians do when faced with two women writing love letters to each other, living together, referring to each other as their wife, and asking to be buried together — in most cases like that, you end up with the historians saying “what an inspiring example of gals being pals! This purely platonic friendship between two heterosexual women just shows how close friends who happen not to have got married for some reason can become!”

In the same way, I expect most people reading this to say “most of those are things that could apply to anyone! You’ve not presented any evidence that Elvis was actually autistic!”

But I expect any autistic person reading this who has spent time in the wider autistic community to say “My God! That’s the most autistic person to ever have autisticed!” or words very much to that effect.

(A note here, BTW — I think Elvis would most likely get a diagnosis of autism were he to be diagnosed today, but autism overlaps with, and is often co-occurring with, a lot of other neurodivergences, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD. There is some debate as to whether these are the same thing manifesting in different ways, or things that tend to cluster together but can occur separately, so it’s possible that Elvis wasn’t autistic but was dyspraxic and ADHD, or whatever.)

The thing that clued me in to Elvis’ neurodivergence, that unlocked this for me, was Sam Phillips talking about signing Elvis. Phillips is often quoted as having wanted “a white man who can sing like a Black man”, but when you listen to the earliest recordings of Elvis, there’s no sensible way anyone could have thought of him that way. What Phillips *actually* said was that “his insecurity was so markedly like that of a Black person.” In particular, in the South at that point, Black people didn’t look white people in the eye. Nor did Elvis.

Both Phillips and Carl Perkins said that Elvis was the most introverted person ever to enter a recording studio, in more or less those exact words.

As a young man, Elvis had very few real friends. He was extremely close to his parents, especially his mother, with whom he almost had a private language and could communicate in a way he couldn’t with anyone else, but had difficulty making friends his own age. He would often hang out with people like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who lived nearby. They would bully him, but they’d let him stand on the edge of the group and sing when they were singing.

Later in life, Elvis would surround himself with the “Memphis Mafia”, a group of people to whom he was intensely loyal, even though they were mostly taking advantage of him.

Elvis was known for being constantly in movement, fingers twitching and legs tapping all the time.

He was extremely poor at emotional regulation, and could swing wildly in mood.

He was a very naturally talented actor, who could lose himself in a role (though he was never given the chance to grow).

Before becoming a singer, he worked for a time as an electrician, but he was very bad at it. He kept giving himself electric shocks, and once said it was a miracle none of the houses he worked on had burned down.

He was very into martial arts, which he liked because it allowed him a sense of control over his body.

Some of his stage costumes in the seventies were patterned on his favourite comic-book character, Captain Marvel Jr.

He was a voracious reader and would bring three trunks filled with books on tour with him.

His famous hip-shaking actually started as nerves — he was trembling the first time he was on stage, and it made his baggy trouser legs shake, which the audience took as intentional.

He watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail thirty-five times, and could quote it from memory. He was also a particular fan of Peter Sellers.

He had a highly restricted diet, and had specific issues with textures — food had to be prepared a particular way, with bacon almost burned and eggs hard, and he would eat particular combinations of food many other people found disgusting. People to this day mock him for his taste for peanut-butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches.

He had real problems with sleeping — he was naturally nocturnal, and often had to rely on medical help to get onto a somewhat-diurnal schedule. Even with pharmaceutical help he rarely slept more than three hours at a time.

He had bad skin — the thing people note most about him as a young man was that he had terrible acne on his neck.

He had a near-photographic memory, and would learn and retain a song after hearing it only once. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music.

And perhaps most importantly, for much of the last few years of his life he was chronically ill but didn’t present that way. The prescription drug use for which he became notorious after his death was a combination of things to treat his sleep problems, and pain medication. The thing that eventually killed him was not his lifestyle, as reported — he had a variety of genetic, stress-related, inflammatory and autoimmune conditions which made him put on weight, including the hypertension that led to his eventual heart attack. These seem to have been inherited from his mother (who also died in her forties). Again, it’s not a formal diagnostic criterion of autism that one has autoimmune problems, but anecdotally the *vast* majority of autistic people have them (there’s a reason the average life expectancy for an autistic person is fifty-four).

But the pain medication… Elvis told his doctors, for years, that he was in a huge amount of pain. They thought he was faking, because he didn’t “act like” someone in pain — they thought he was after drugs. So sometimes he was prescribed real opiates, but other times he would be given placebos, made to look like the drugs that worked. When those didn’t work, he took more of them, so when he got the real stuff he took more than he should, which made the doctors believe he was just after drugs… 

After his death, when those same doctors re-examined X-rays of him, it was obvious he had arthritis, and had really been in unspeakable agony for years. But he’d just not seemed like he was in pain to the doctors. He didn’t act how a person in pain “should” act.

Again, nobody who isn’t neurodivergent will read the above and be convinced. But I think if you’ve any experience of the neurodivergent community, you’re going to read that, and come to the same conclusion as me.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A DVD A Day: Doctor Who — Castrovalva

I forgot to post this one yesterday, so I’m already not living up to the title…

Castrovalva is the first Doctor Who story featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor, and for the first time in one of these DVDs I’ve come across something that I have quite a bit to say about.

While it was the first story of season nineteen, it has always felt to me like it was the last story of season eighteen. There are a number of reasons for that — one is that it follows directly on from the last scene of Logopolis, Tom Baker’s last story, whose ending it reprises before the credits. Another is that it was the ending of a loose trilogy (what Alex Wilcock calls The Master’s Doctor Plan) which started with The Keeper of Traken, the story before Logopolis, and all three of them are packaged together in the same DVD set (though with the new move towards making everything into season Blu-Rays, I wonder how the next generation of fans will view these).

But the most important reason is that this story is written by Christopher H Bidmead, who had been the script editor for season eighteen, had written Logopolis, and had been the principal creative force behind that oddest of seasons generally.

There is a lot to say about Bidmead, but perhaps the most telling is that he is the epitome of the creative artist who doesn’t understand his own work. In every interview, Bidmead talks about how he wanted to make Doctor Who into hard science fiction which taught kids about real scientific ideas, and which was firmly grounded in reality, not in fantasy. Instead, his season takes us through episodes on lizard Mafiosi, talking cacti and the mystical powers of Platonic solids, Lamarckianism, Hammer horror pastiche vampires, magic mirrors and the I Ching in a story that’s half Cocteau pastiche and half Adam Ant video, a Shakespearean riff on the idea of the Great Chain of Being, and then finally a world of monks whose chanting holds the universe together.

This from a man who thought that he was making something educational about science.

The scripts in season eighteen tend to hang together even less well as plots than some of those in the previous few seasons, yet what they do have is a tremendous thematic resonance. Whatever their ostensible writers, they all keep coming back to the same few themes — hidden knowledge from the past returning and upending a society; appearances not being what they seem; duplicates of people (so many duplicates); entropy and decay; worlds that operate according to pre-scientific philosophical worldviews; and recursion.

These motifs keep coming back in different forms, and so in Meglos for example the Doctor has a lookalike that’s a giant cactus, while in Logopolis there are multiple versions of the Doctor going round, and most of them seem to be tied to a particular late-seventies/early-eighties aesthetic, a post-hippie version of reality which is trying to decide whether the universe is really a giant computer, or if it’s a creation of our own consciousness, or both simultaneously. The reference points here are things like Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson, The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, and many other books which try in some way or another to unify quantum physics, parapsychology, cybernetics, and Eastern mysticism (the particular variety of Eastern doesn’t really matter, in this view — Buddhism, Taoism, whatever, it’s all that Ancient Eastern Wisdom stuff).

(I sound dismissive, but I actually have a lot of time for that kind of thing — those books are often very wrong, and a bit mush-headed, but they’re also the product of people trying to think about important questions and trying to use every tool available in their toolkit to find answers. When they’re wrong, they’re interestingly wrong, and occasionally they’re right.)

Another book that got read by the same people who read those books was Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter — a book which tries to use parables containing Alice in Wonderland characters, art by Escher, and discussion of some music by Bach, to try to explain Godel’s theorem, and also to put forward Hofstadter’s own hypothesis about one of those big questions — in this case, his belief that consciousness can be explained as a form of recursion.

Bidmead seems to have latched on to this book, and in particular to the Escher stuff, which appealed to his own aesthetic sense. Because one other thing about season eighteen that doesn’t get pointed out quite as often as those themes is that it’s often a season that’s explicitly about the spaces its characters inhabit, and that’s driven as much by the sets as by the characters — the sets tend (in the most Bidmeadesque episodes) to be reifications of the story’s themes. The logic of a lot of Bidmead’s stories is the place where the logics of early Doctor Who and of text adventure games meet. They’re all about exploring a physical space more than interacting with characters as such, and the exploration of the space leads to revelation of the story’s underlying plot.

And given that Escher, of course, drew impossible, recursive, spaces in his images, that made his work the perfect subject for a Bidmead story. And so we have Castrovalva, named after one of Escher’s etchings, but with a central revelation that comes straight from another one — the space in which the second half of the story takes place is modelled on Ascending and Descending.

The recursive space our protagonists are in turns out to have been created by the Master, using a kind of computation whose name Bidmead nicked from the instruction set of the Z80 microprocessor, but which in-story can only be performed by living minds — precisely the kind of quantum mysticism that all those books talk about (and which seems to have no basis in reality, given that to the extent that the human brain is a computer there’s no evidence that it’s not just a normal Turing machine rather than a quantum computer). The Master plants precisely the kind of false history we’ve seen time and again in the Bidmead-shaped stories previously, and everything in the story works towards a single aesthetic aim.

My favourite Doctor Who has always been the times when it seems to be grasping towards being about something much bigger than itself — that’s one reason I’m such a fan of the Faction Paradox series, which amplifies that tendency. It’s only occasionally done so on screen, and those are some of the oddest stories, the ones that can stand up most to repeated viewings — Evil of the Daleks, The Mind Robber, The Space Museum, The Deadly Assassin, Shada, Vengeance on Varos. There are only a small number of creators who seemed to view the series as something that could do this kind of thing — David Whitaker, Bob Holmes, Douglas Adams, and David Maloney seem to be the principal ones — and Chris Bidmead was the last one to do it consistently.

Many of the stories with which Bidmead was involved ended up not being very good, and if you ask him what he was trying to do, what he *thought* he was doing was something I would have no time for at all. But when you look at this, or Logopolis, you see something almost visionary, something I miss in later incarnations of the series.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments