Celebrating the Underdog in Us All

It seems like just about everybody is willing to cheer for a lovable loser. We know that these challenged individuals don’t stand a chance of coming out on top in their respective pursuits, but we pull for them anyway, hoping that their efforts will pay off in a modicum of respectability. At the very least, we admire them for their gumption, their willingness to try, even in the face of heavily stacked odds. That’s probably because we can see some of ourselves in them, looking up to them for their commitment to attempt something that we might not be able to bring ourselves to do. Such are the sentiments prompted by the new fact-based comedy, “The Phantom of the Open” (web site, trailer).

When it comes to those who’ve achieved celebrity cult status for their magnificent gaffes, the names of filmmaker Ed Wood and British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle readily come to mind. And now, thanks to this hilarious new release, we can add golfer Maurice Flitcroft to that list. The film follows the story of this supremely optimistic underdog (Mark Rylance) in pursuing his dream of becoming a professional golfer after years of working as a crane operator in a shipyard in the English port of Barrow.

The world’s worst golfer, Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), manages to stumble into the 1976 British Open much to the dismay of tournament officials and the delight of encouraging fans, as seen in the new fact-based comedy, “The Phantom of the Open.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

So what’s Maurice’s reason for the change? Given the UK government’s plan to nationalize businesses like this in the 1970s, the middle-aged blue collar worker faces the prospect of losing his job due to downsizing and consolidation, despite the fact that his own stepson, Michael (Jake Davies), is an executive in the company. When word of this possibility first emerges, Maurice muses over the idea with his co-workers, Cliff (Mark Lewis Jones) and Willie (Johann Myers), both of whom are somewhat anxious about what the future might hold. But, being the optimist that he is, Maurice is largely unconcerned, knowing that he’ll land on his feet, even if he’s not sure how or where. However, that all changes one night while watching television.

While switching channels, Maurice lands on televised coverage of the prestigious British Open golf tournament and is instantly captivated. Having never played a round of the game in his life, he’s utterly taken with what he sees, and he thus knows that’s what he’s destined to do. All he has to do now is figure out how.

Starting from scratch, having never picked up a club, visited a golf course or learned any of the rules of the game, he proceeds in earnest to investigate what it takes to participate in the 1976 Open. Considering that he’s not anywhere near to being even at the amateur level, his questions about this undertaking are laughable, even to those who know little to nothing about the sport. It’s as if he’s going about things blindly, but that doesn’t matter to him. His innocence and blissful naïvete are enough to keep him moving forward.

Fortunately, Maurice has his share of help in this undertaking. His adoring wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), and twin sons, Gene (Christian Lees) and James (Jonah Lees), are tremendous sources of support. His friend Cliff supplies him with the equipment and suitably stylish clothing he’ll need to compete. And, before long, he receives the unexpected blessing of Open officials, who approve his application to compete.

So how does someone like Maurice qualify for such an exclusive competition? He can thank condescending tournament officials Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans) and John Pegg (Tim Steed) for green-lighting his application. They’re so full of themselves and the elitist reputation of their sport that they can’t imagine anyone having the kind of moxie Maurice possesses to apply for participation in something for which he’s clearly unqualified. They fail to check his background, never bothering to see what golf clubs he belongs to, what tournaments he has played in or what kind of track record he has amassed as an alleged professional. It’s astounding that the amateur managed to get this far with the Open, given that he was previously denied access by his local golf course to play there just for practice.

Jean Flitcroft (Sally Hawkins), the adoring wife of an amateur would-be golfer, stands by her husband in director Craig Roberts’s latest, “The Phantom of the Open,” now playing theatrically in select cities. Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

When the time comes for the ill-prepared Mr. Flitcroft to take to the green to play in an Open qualifying round, it quickly becomes apparent he’s out of his league as Messrs. Mackenzie and Pegg look on perplexed and aghast. Who is this person, and how did he get to where he is now? It’s not long before the officials realize they’ve had heaps of egg piled on their faces, and they try to encourage Maurice to withdraw only partway through his round, a request he politely refuses. He keeps playing, eventually tallying a record-breaking score of 121 by the time he finishes.

While most might find such an outlandish tally utterly embarrassing, Maurice matter-of-factly takes it as a cue that he needs more practice to play better in future outings. But he isn’t the only one to take matters in stride. Broadcasters and golf enthusiasts see Maurice as a lovable underdog, one who has competed against the odds and did the best he could, despite his horrendous performance on the links. One could also argue that they probably took some perverse glee in seeing the snooty officials so roundly humiliated for their arrogant stupidity. Indeed, comeuppance can be a bitch.

Needless to say, Mackenzie and Pegg are outraged and take steps to prevent Maurice from being able to play on any golf course in Britain ever again. Such a step, they believe, would not only prevent Maurice from trying to surreptitiously launch a bid for playing in a future Open, but it would also help to overtly squelch any memories of his mortifying “prank” on their revered and beloved sport (even though that’s not at all how Maurice viewed it).

While the newcomer could laugh off the overblown bluster of the Open officials, others closer to home shared in that embarrassment, creating feelings that subsequently engendered ill will in the Flitcroft household. This is most notably apparent with Michael, who fears that his dad’s humiliating public actions would harm his own reputation at work, particularly in eyes of his boss, Gerald Hopkins (Steve Oram). Given Maurice’s long and well-known tenure with the shipyard, Michael is afraid that his father’s golfing antics would reflect badly on him and the company, thereby putting his own job in jeopardy. This strains relations between father and son, but Maurice vows to keep trying his hand at his new vocation, despite the challenges created by golfing officials. He enjoys what he’s doing, and he doesn’t think it fair that others are trying to stop him or shame him. He looks for ways to slip in under the radar to partake in future competitions, knowing that, if others criticize him, he has strong public support to back him up.

British Open officials Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans, left) and John Pegg (Tim Steed, right) look on in embarrassment when they watch the abysmal performance of a rank amateur who stumbled his way into their tournament, as seen in “The Phantom of the Open.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Thus the legend of Maurice Flitcroft, the world’s worst golfer, is born. He becomes a cult hero with an adoring following. And he serves as an inspiring symbol for all those who feel undeterred in following their dreams. So what if he doesn’t win any trophies or make a mark on any scorecards? He loves what he does, and he won’t let circumstances impede his efforts to try. And who can find fault with that?

Maurice certainly set quite an example for us all. Once he made up his mind, he was committed to following through on his dream, something that many of us only (pardon the pun) “dream” about and never act on. His story is especially inspiring in light of the fact that his aspiration was so ambitious. Indeed, he set his sights on something grand, an objective almost comparable to, say, a senior lacking spaceflight experience suddenly wanting to become an astronaut. And he made it happen – maybe not the way he thought it would work out, but he brought it into being nevertheless.

That’s because Maurice believed in himself and the fulfillment of his goal. Those beliefs are a powerful impetus, too, for they drive the manifestation of the reality we experience. It’s not clear whether Maurice had ever heard of this school of thought, but he certainly was well versed in its principles and application, as evidenced by how his story unfolded. His “Never Say Die” attitude provided the basis for his pursuit of this objective, and he remained true to it throughout the venture’s realization.

In making this happen, Maurice drew upon a number of beliefs that supported this goal. For instance, he overcame any apprehensions that stood in his way. He sought to participate in the Open as though it were something available to everyone; after all, the tournament was called the “Open,” which certainly implied inclusivity rather than the blatantly intrinsic exclusivity characterizing the field of competitors and means for qualification. Fearlessly forging ahead like this came naturally to him, and he didn’t hesitate to draw upon it, first in his beliefs and subsequently in his actions.

Sizing up a shot during a British Open qualifying round, newcomer Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) turns in a record-breaking high score that turns heads in the golf world, as seen in “The Phantom of the Open.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In addition, Maurice looked past any limitations that might be holding him back. Whenever a roadblock arose, he resourcefully looked for a workaround, a creative, unexpected solution to remove the impediment and enable him to proceed. These solutions were often anything but conventional, but sometimes such inventive measures were just what he needed to overcome the problems at hand. By thwarting those who tried to hold him back, he found the unobstructed paths that allowed him to continue to move forward.

Taken collectively, these beliefs provided Maurice with the persistence he needed to succeed, and that’s important given that there’s perhaps no better quality to define the character of the underdog. By remaining committed to striving, Maurice was able to follow his dream and make it real. And, when someone under these circumstances manages to achieve a sought-after goal, there’s often a strong natural tendency for followers to rejoice at that success, even if it’s not perfect. Recognition of the effort provides its own laurels, and both fans and participants can rejoice in such accomplishments.

Such scenarios frequently inspire others to follow suit. That’s apparent in the efforts of Maurice’s twin sons, who seek to become champion professional disco dancers. They look up to their dad’s aspirations and want to attain the kind of success that he has (well, maybe a little better given their talent and experience). They’re solidly bought in to the idea of pursuing their dreams, no matter how frivolous they might be viewed by others (such as their stepbrother Michael, who tends to look down on them the same way he does with their father). No matter how well they ultimately perform, however, they at least have a good example to follow.

We could learn a lot from the experiences of the Flitcroft family. They show us what we should do when we have a cherished dream that we want to fulfill. They inspire us to reach for our own greatness. And they help us understand that there’s no stopping us when we believe in ourselves and remain committed to our objectives. Who thought we could learn so much from a horrible golfer and a pair of disco dancers?

Following the example set by their uninhibited father, twin brothers Gene and James Flitcroft (Christian Lees, Jonah Lees) aspire to become champion professional disco dancers, as seen in director Craig Roberts’s “The Phantom of the Open.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Off-hand notoriety may not seem like something someone would aspire to, yet Maurice’s efforts nevertheless catapulted him to the top of the sports pages at the time and made him a surprise living legend. And, through it all, he managed to hold on to his soft-spoken, unassuming attitude, maintaining always that it’s better to try and fail than to never try at all. Director Craig Roberts’s sweet, charming, whimsically funny tale delights from start to finish, especially in the picture’s second half, in large part thanks to the fine performances of Rylance, Hawkins and Ifans. What’s more, there’s no need to worry about a lack of knowledge about golf, as this is more of a story about a determined underdog who just happens to be a golfer than one requiring an intimate familiarity with the particulars of the sport. Admittedly, this offering could be a little better paced in the opening hour, the overdone soundtrack could stand to be toned down somewhat, and several fantasy sequences and transition bridges could have been handled more effectively. But those are small criticisms in light of everything else that the picture gets right. Indeed, how refreshing it is for this year’s summer movie season to finally produce something truly worth seeing! So tee up and give this one a shot – you won’t regret it. The film is currently playing theatrically in select cities.

We all probably have a little bit of Maurice Flitcroft in us. But how many of us actually have the nerve to let it out and put it on display? We may feel intimidated by the prospect or even embarrassed at the notion of failure. But, if such endeavors are ultimately not to be taken seriously, why not cut loose and see what happens? We could be pleasantly surprised. And, if not, at least we’ve made the attempt to find out and maybe have a little fun along the way. An old saying maintains that we should “dance like nobody’s watching.” Maurice didn’t seem to care about what spectators thought, but, for being willing to make the effort, he still got noticed anyway.

Good for him.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

June Movies, Round 2

Join guest host Ishita Sharma and yours truly for a second helping of June movie reviews on the next edition of Frankiesense & More! The show, to begin airing on Thursday June 30, will feature reviews of five new releases, as well as the first-ever Frankiesense & More LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, presenting looks at movies for Pride Month. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

Exposing the Perils of Deception 

The truth can be hard to face. We may want to deny it, dismiss it or cover it up, but it inevitably comes back to us in all its unblemished fidelity, forcing us to deal with it, no matter how dire the consequences associated with it may be. Attempts at imposing deception may work for a while, but cracks in the foundation of such lies ultimately emerge, enabling victims and onlookers to clearly view all of the excuses, exaggerations and dishonesty that went into the creation of this kind of fraudulent concealment. Such is the lesson we should all hope to learn from the riveting yet infuriating new documentary, “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” (web site, trailer).

As bad as you might have thought it was, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster was far worse than any of us knew, as revealed in this unflinching new HBO documentary from director James Jones. With a wealth of previously unseen footage recorded at the facility at the time of the catastrophe and recent interviews with witnesses who managed to survive the calamity, the film serves up a telling account of what happened, often in horrifically graphic images (sensitive viewers beware). The environmental damage, death toll and genetic nightmares that resulted from this tragedy are incalculable and have left a legacy that’s lasted to this day. What’s more, this release provides a detailed account of the Soviet government’s efforts to deliberately downplay the severity of the incident, including calculated deception and outright lying to its own people and concerned parties around the globe (so much for the glasnost and perestroika of the era). It’s an event that sent a powerful message to the planet about the dangers of nuclear energy and contributed significantly to the downfall of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR five years later.

As the film shows, it could be said that the Chernobyl nuclear facility and the nearby residential community of Pripyat, both located approximately 90 kilometers from the then-Soviet-controlled Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was built on lies from the outset. In 1972, under the direction of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, construction began on the plant and the adjacent living quarters for the facility’s workers and their families. It was intended to serve as a prototype for other such plants and communities to be built throughout the Soviet Union. And, in a decidedly propagandist move, Chernobyl and Pripyat were constructed to be quite modern and lavish by the country’s standards at the time. Those who moved there sincerely believed they were fortunate compared to what was afforded many of their fellow countrymen.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of an April 1986 fire and explosion, is home to one of the world’s worst atomic energy disasters ever recorded, as seen in the revealing new HBO documentary, “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.” Photo by Mads Eneqvist on Unsplash.com.

New residents were assured they were safe and should have no concerns about radioactivity, an assertion that most everyone accepted without question. After all, why would their government lie to them, especially when they were being enticed to locate to a community with such beautiful green spaces, good schools and a popular amusement park?

Unfortunately, the workers and residents weren’t informed about the inherent dangers lurking in the design of the plant. Unlike the facilities located in other plants around the globe, the Chernobyl nuclear reactors were not housed in containment buildings to trap released radiation in the event of an accident. This fundamental design flaw would allow dangerous levels of radioactivity to escape into the environment uncontrolled in the event of an explosion, fire or other mishap. This made the facility a potentially ticking time bomb from the outset, a caution not made known to residents or many of the workers.

In the early 1980s, the reactors gradually came on line amidst considerable fanfare, an alleged demonstration of the Soviets’ cutting-edge technological expertise. But, on April 26, 1986, something happened that changed everything – an explosion and fire that blew the roof off of the facility, releasing a dangerous cloud of radiation into the surrounding environment. It was estimated that the accident dispersed radioactivity equivalent to 400 times the amount released by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

The initial response to the disaster was wholly inadequate. Firefighters summoned to the plant worked at the site for long shifts, receiving lethal doses of radiation within hours. What’s more, officials did little to inform residents about what had happened. Many locals went about their business normally, with no clue that they were moving about in a cloud of toxic particles. Schoolchildren, business owners and their families were oblivious to what was going on around them, most likely because the deadly enemy enveloping them couldn’t be seen, felt or tasted. And, with no warnings from authorities, they assumed, what was there to worry about?

Circumstances changed quickly, however, when officials began to register how high the radiation levels had become. They hurriedly organized evacuation plans for the residents of Chernobyl and Pripyat, who were told to grab their essentials as quickly as possible and prepare to relocate to an outside safety area that would become known as the “exclusion zone.” But, even in the midst of this swiftly expedited effort, authorities still weren’t honest. They assured evacuees that they were under no threat from the radiation, that levels were within normal and acceptable limits. They also told residents that their evacuation was to be only temporary and that they’d be able to return home soon.

As word of the disaster slowly began leaking out of the Soviet Union, officials like President Gorbachev scrambled to keep matters quiet and to downplay news reports about what was happening. This was true not only within the country, but also in announcements made globally. It’s a plan that didn’t hold up, however, especially when significantly elevated radiation levels were being reported in places like Scandinavia, hundreds of miles away. Even more far-removed places like the United Kingdom were experiencing the effects of radioactive rain. And other world leaders, like US President Ronald Reagan, were demanding answers.

Still, though, the deception continued as new tasks were initiated. For example, containment of the radiation at the reactor site proved to be an enormously arduous task. Many procedures proved inadequate, and efforts that relied on technological solutions, such as robotic drones to do the most dangerous work, were unsuccessful. It soon became apparent that the only way to get the job done was to employ manpower to carry out these labor-intensive practices. The government recruited “volunteers” to do work that amounted to a virtual death sentence. However, in doing this, officials again soft-pedaled what the laborers were up against. They were given the euphemistic title of “liquidators,” an innocuous, seemingly wholesome label to characterize the nature of dangerous tasks they about to take on. What’s more, they were widely proclaimed “heroes of the Soviet Union” for the valiant work they were about to do, an “honor”  that many of the liquidators proudly yet naïvely embraced. And, when they each received their rewards of 800 rubles, they reverently accepted their payments, often with tears in their eyes. It’s unclear how many of them lived long enough to spend their money.

The Ferris wheel at the local amusement park was once one of the most popular attractions in Pripyat, the now-abandoned residential community that served as home to Chernobyl nuclear power plant employees and their families, as seen in director James Jones’s unsettling new documentary, “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.” Photo by Kato Blackmore on Unsplash.com.

As time passed, containment was gradually achieved, but workers, residents and liquidators began dying horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. They were given heroic burials by the state, many of them being interred in Moscow, far removed from their homes in Ukraine to prevent any remaining local residents from being able to find out what happened to their onetime friends, neighbors and loved ones. And, to help ensure that the truth about these deaths remained secret, their immediate survivors were coerced into signing nondisclosure agreements that carried severe penalties.

Even as word of what had happened was beginning to make its way around the world, the Soviets continued to do whatever they could to conceal the truth about Chernobyl. But, as Gorbachev’s ruling initiatives involving glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) began to take hold throughout the government and culture, their influence couldn’t be prevented from finding their way into efforts aimed at fostering revelations about what happened at the nuclear power plant. And, while this catastrophe alone wasn’t enough to bring about the collapse of the Soviet regime, it certainly played an important part in the leader’s and the country’s downfall. So much for trying to hide the truth.

When we buy into the kinds of ill-conceived beliefs employed by the Soviets here, they invariably impact the outcomes we achieve. And, if those beliefs are fundamentally flawed, masquerading as lies attempting to conceal the truth, calamity is almost certain to result. Disappointing though that may be to those seeking to pull off such hoaxes, that’s one of the hard truths associated with this practice in terms of the resulting reality we experience. It’s difficult to say if any of the Soviet professionals or authorities involved in this scenario were aware of this school of thought. In fact, given how events played out, it’s unlikely that they had, considering that the outcomes they attained poignantly reflect what happens when we purposely embrace beliefs that disregard the truth. Those “distorted” beliefs led directly to what occurred – a debacle that embodied the lies on which they were built.

In a backhanded way, this scenario illustrates how this principle works and how the results it engenders accurately reflect the thoughts, beliefs and intents that went into the process. And, if that in itself isn’t enough to convince skeptics about its functioning, there’s undeniable evidence in the cinematic records of what happened. As the footage shot at Chernobyl clearly shows, the presence and impact of radiation are readily apparent. Much of the film from the time of the accident is pockmarked by small flashes of white light. According to the picture’s narration, those flashes are not due to the aging of the celluloid but to radioactive particles that struck the film emulsion at the time the recording was made. The proof, as they say, is truly in the pudding.

Abandoned corridors in countless buildings characterize the cityscape of the once-vibrant community of Chernobyl, home of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, as chronicled in director James Jones’s new HBO documentary, “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.” Photo by Oleksandra Bardash on Unsplash.com.

Then there’s the underlying intent that went into the filming of these events in the first place. True to their propagandist intents, officials ordered the creation of this footage to provide a record of the so-called “gallant heroism” of the Soviet people who were involved in the cleanup effort. But, considering what was actually captured on film, this cinematic project exposed the folly, if not the outright inhumane cruelty, of what Soviet authorities were doing. Indeed, one’s stomach might easily churn at the images of smiling, uninformed laborers being sent off to clear massive amounts of radioactive debris with the faux, ungrateful blessings of authorities. The images of liquidators embarking on carrying out the officials’ dirty work doesn’t glorify the laborers’ heroism; it instead exposes – in a bona fide record – the heartless insincerity of those desperately trying to cover their tracks. (This is not to suggest that the laborers weren’t making a heroic sacrifice; they were. It’s just unfortunate that they didn’t know that going in. At the very least, however, the footage unwittingly evidences the disingenuous intent of authorities, documenting the betrayal callously being thrust upon the laborers by officials.)

Even in the wake of all this, the Soviets and their contemporary successors still won’t own up to what actually happened. For instance, the released radiation affected more than just the residents of the area at the time; it persisted long after, even to this day. Also, many former residents who left Chernobyl later went on to give birth to children afflicted with serious health conditions (most notably different forms of cancer) and bizarre birth defects. These issues have been seen in animal populations as well, such as livestock being born with deformities like legs growing out of their necks. Then there’s the death toll, which has been estimated at roughly 200,000 individuals, despite official records claiming that it was only 31, a figure that has remained fixed for nearly 40 years. Some lessons, it would seem, are hard to come by.

The bottom line of this chronicle is that it effectively illustrates what occurs when we’re so focused on outcomes that we disregard the consequences that often accompany this kind of tunnel vision approach to managing our beliefs. By ignoring the potential fallout (no pun intended) in this, we may incur unwanted side effects or grossly distorted versions of our hoped-for creations, something that I’m sure most of us can agree came out of what happened at Chernobyl. Such results make it incumbent upon us to consider the nature of our creations and the beliefs that underlie them more scrupulously. Indeed, the Chernobyl incident painfully reveals what can occur when we don’t.

The stage in one of Chernobyl’s schools sits abandoned after the community was evacuated nearly 40 years ago in the wake of a local nuclear power plant disaster, as detailed in the new HBO documentary, “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.” Photo by Mick De Paola on Unsplash.com.

It’s also important to recognize some troubling parallels between what happened in Ukraine under Soviet rule and what’s unfolding there currently in the wake of the attempted Russian takeover. The same kinds of lies that the Soviets used to downplay the Chernobyl incident are being employed by the Russian government to dismiss the severity of and reasons behind the war in Ukraine. One would like to hope that humanity is making progress in evolving toward a greater state of enlightenment, but the situation that has been playing out in recent months would seem to indicate otherwise. And, what’s worse, it’s saddening to see the same kind of deceptive reporting practices being put to use by Russian officials yet again. The circumstance may be different, but the tactic is the same; we can only hope the result isn’t.

In a sense, we should truly be grateful that a record was made of what happened at Chernobyl, difficult though it may be to watch at times. It exposes what really happened, not the sanitized pronouncements that were deliberately devised to keep the truth obscured. Director James Jones has amassed and effectively organized an impressive collection of footage that simultaneously captivates and appalls. In particular, the stories of the Chernobyl survivors will both touch and sadden viewers, but the heroism of these individuals should be recognized as well, given that some of them have spoken out despite the potential retribution they face for violating their confidentiality agreements. “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” is must-see viewing for anyone who cares about the dangers of hiding the truth, as well as the dangers of nuclear power. It’s a potent warning to us all; let’s hope we’re paying attention. The film is currently airing on HBO and HBOMax.

If the foregoing isn’t convincing enough to illustrate what can happen when attempting to dodge the truth, I don’t know what is. Deception should be seen as a tactic that’s fundamentally dead on arrival, because it ultimately cannot survive. We should be cognizant – and thankful – for that. Unfortunately, many of us still try to make use of it when we don’t want to face up to our own missteps. In the end, though, it would behoove us to recognize that, for it’s far easier – and more preferable – to deal with our missteps than with our misgivings.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Rise and Fall of an Innovator

Every so often, innovators come along in various fields of endeavor who shake things up and create something unique and inventive, revolutionary conceptions that set their particular milieus of expression on their ear. These creations set new standards for others to emulate or adapt, sometimes even birthing entirely distinct genres different from others that preceded them. In the world of painting, names like Rembrandt and Jackson Pollock come to mind; in writing, icons like William Shakespeare and Ursula K. Le Guin emerge; and in music, the works of Beethoven, Prince and Philip Glass step to the fore. And, when it comes to rock ʼn roll, the king of the genre virtually always springs to mind, the subject of the glitzy new biopic, “Elvis” (web site, trailer).

Given how many biographies about Elvis Presley have been made over the years, I had to wonder how much we really needed yet another one. However, director Baz Luhrmann’s new take on the King of Rock ʼn Roll chronicles his story with a highly stylistic approach that hasn’t been as readily apparent in prior productions. Admittedly, the film covers mostly safe territory, presenting Presley’s biography with few new revelations or insights into his life and career. Yet it also places somewhat greater emphasis on certain aspects of the music icon’s life story compared to previous depictions, such as his largely overlooked concerns about social justice issues and his efforts to promote wider awareness of African-American music and artists. In essence, it provides viewers with different degrees of shading and focus that help to distinguish it from earlier efforts.

Interestingly, the film places almost as much attention on the King’s manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), as it does on Presley (Austin Butler). Given how much influence the Colonel had on Presley’s career, it’s hard to separate them. And, from a narrative standpoint, each has a compelling story to tell – Presley with his myriad public personas, from rock ʼn roll bad boy to clean-cut Hollywood film star to larger-than-life Las Vegas stage performer, and the enigmatic Parker with his secretive past, shifty, self-serving manner of dealing, and blustery carnival barker style of management. In some ways, this is as much Parker’s story as it is Presley’s.

The picture’s story line takes a rather rote, highly familiar approach to Presley’s life. Beginning with his challenged childhood in Tupelo, MS, we see a young Presley (Chaydon Jay) growing up in a household largely managed by his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson), while his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), serves jail time for writing a bad check. Limited income forces mother and son to live in low-income housing in an area predominantly populated by impoverished African-American residents. But that experience exposes young Elvis to the music of his neighborhood peers, something to which he takes an instant liking – and plants the seeds of his future.

Upon relocating to Memphis, TN, at age 13, Elvis continues to develop his interest in music. In the early 1950s, he begins hanging out at nightclubs on the city’s legendary Beale Street strip, where he befriends some of the major African-American musicians of the day, such as B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason) and Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). Their influence rubs off on him significantly, and that’s reflected in his early recordings, which receive considerable regional radio airplay. His songs soon catch the attention of country musician Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee), son of country music legend Hank Snow (David Wenham). The younger Snow, who at the time is touring with his father’s road show, alerts his dad’s manager to the sound of the rising new talent. And that manager, who’s looking to add artists to the road show’s roster of performers, just happens to be Col. Parker.

Before long, Elvis is on the Hank Snow show lineup, quickly rising through the ranks to become the most popular performer on the show card. But Snow is unhappy with Presley’s “lewd” on-stage performances; the youngster’s wildly gyrating hip movements offend his older, more conservative colleague and end up earning him the cheesy, disparaging nickname “Elvis the Pelvis.” Granted, his provocative stage presence develops a reputation for working up crowds into a frenzy (especially among the women, some of whom scream and toss their underwear onto the stage), but Parker does little to restrain his client’s behavior, clearly realizing that’s what sells tickets.

At that point, Snow and Presley part ways, enabling Elvis to become his own headliner. He also manages to land appearances on TV variety shows hosted by the likes of Milton Berle and Steve Allen. However, despite this popularity, his on-stage antics impede him in getting booked to some gigs that hold the promise of greater exposure. It even captures the attention of officials like Sen. James Eastland (D-MS) (Nicholas Bell), who seek to bar this so-called obscene musical menace from the airwaves.

When an altercation erupts at one of Presley’s concert performances, at the advice of Parker, the singer attempts to deflect attention away from the controversy by engaging in military service. The move is designed to repackage the rebellious youth as a clean-cut young man, a more mature version of Elvis who it was believed would be more palatable to mainstream American audiences. Revamping his image is also a step to prepare him for a career as a Hollywood actor, one of Presley’s long-cherished dreams. But things don’t quite work out as hoped for on that front; while longing for substantial dramatic roles, he is primarily cast in innocuous romantic comedies that afford him opportunities to sing as well as act. Those lightweight vehicles are largely panned by critics, despite most of them being box office money-makers, at least at first.

As the 1960s unfold, however, circumstances begin to change for Elvis personally, professionally and culturally, and he experiences his share of heartache and disappointment. His mother’s death at age 46 is a crushing blow. The arrival of the British Invasion, headlined by the Beatles, heralds a change in tastes of popular music. The sociopolitical climate of the country becomes increasingly troubling with the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY), events that affected Elvis deeply. And, as the decade wears on, interest wanes for Presley’s increasingly silly movie projects. True, there are happy moments, such as the King’s marriage to his loving wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), but Elvis is desperately in need of reinventing himself.

Presley has many ideas for new projects, most notably overseas tours, but, every time he discusses them with Parker, the Colonel steers his client in new directions. Instead, he proposes such prospects as a television special and performing at the opening of the Las Vegas International Hotel, a venue featuring the largest concert stage in the city. Though initially reluctant to pursue these possibilities, once properly sweet-talked by his silver-tongued manager, Presley agrees to both projects.

Presley’s 1968 comeback TV broadcast proves to be a huge hit, putting his name back on the entertainment map. It’s a triumph that introduces him to director/co-producer Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) and talent manager Jerry Schilling (Luke Bracey). Impressed with what they were able to do for him, Elvis begins aligning himself with them more closely, as he begins to realize that Parker may not have his best interests at heart. Those suspicions prove correct when Elvis discovers that Parker is secretly railroading him into commitments that he hadn’t formally agreed to, such as an extended performance schedule at the International in lieu of a promise of an overseas tour schedule. He also discovers evidence that Parker has been fleecing him, at times taking up to 50% of the revenues from certain projects.

As all this unfolds, Presley begins experiencing his share of personal problems. His marriage has hit the skids after the revelation of a series of less-than-discreet affairs. Also, given his ambitious work schedule, Presley becomes dependent on prescription medications, an addiction that exacerbates his rapidly failing health and a noticeable (and frequently lampooned) weight gain. And, as the situation deteriorates, his performances suffer. The onetime innovator who managed to make quite a name for himself and become the best-selling rock ʼn roll artist of all time is in serious decline, and not even his remarkable ability to bounce back and reinvent himself appears to be enough to pull him out of this accelerating downfall.

We should all be grateful for the innovators in our lives. The impact they have on our culture is often tremendous, and, sooner or later, that influence frequently trickles down to us as individuals, shaping us in various ways. This could be by way of imitation or, perhaps more importantly, by way of inspiring us to become innovators in our own right, either in the same field of those who influenced us or in other unrelated but nevertheless significant ways. And that’s something we can thank Elvis for, even if he didn’t realize he was having that kind of impact.

So how do individuals like Elvis accomplish this? It’s because they believe they can realize their dreams, either overtly or subconsciously. Presley accomplished so much simply as a result of invoking these intangible forces in manifesting the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. He may not have been familiar with this particular school of thought, but, considering what he achieved, he was certainly a master of its principles. And, in doing so, he passed along so much to so many others in so many ways.

What’s particularly intriguing about what Elvis accomplished is that he made it look so easy. He always seemed to fall into what he was doing and make it work without needless exertion or Herculean effort. In large part that’s because, on some level deep down inside, he knew what he was doing and believed that he could make it happen. What’s more, he also believed that he could transform himself, reinventing himself when the need arose, as the various phases of his career illustrate. That shows an adeptness to change – and being open to the idea when the need arose – no matter how many fears, limitations or obstacles may arise in connection with such endeavors. Now that’s innovation at work.

To a great degree, this comes about as a result of recognizing where the point of power lies – in the present moment. Elvis always seemed to have a knack for being in the now and drawing from the only point of power over which we have any genuine control. This is not to say that he (or we) didn’t look at the future or the past, but he understood that the present was where the true power resides and successfully made use of it, creating a myriad of moments that we all remember and associate with his ability to innovate.

Of course, this also raises the question, if Elvis was so inventive, why did he succumb to the manipulation of the Colonel and subsequently suffer such an early demise? This, too, has to do with the management of one’s personal power, which, in the case of Presley’s relations with his manager, came down to surrendering too much of it. While Elvis may have been an innovator in terms of his creativity, he was less adept at the everyday management part of the equation and relied on Parker to handle such matters for him. Presley’s belief in the Colonel drove that decision, even if it wasn’t the wisest course where his best interests were at heart. Moreover, once this decision began to influence Presley’s creative choices, such as where his career was headed and what types of projects he wanted to tackle, the foundation of that career began to suffer. If Elvis had had more conviction in his own beliefs in this regard, there’s no telling where circumstances may have taken him. Less stress, less over-exertion in his workload and more satisfaction from fulfilling his own aspirations could well have better suited and sustained him, resulting in fewer deleterious effects on his health and well-being. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure, but at least we can enjoy – and be thankful – for what he left us and the impact he had on our art, culture and society. Long live the King.

This latest installment in the Elvis legacy is a solid, reverential, if a bit uneven, offering about the King of Rock ʼn Roll. True to the filmmaker’s characteristic glitzy, high-gloss cinematic style, “Elvis” is decidedly cut from the same cloth as earlier works like “Strictly Ballroom” (1992) and the remake of “The Great Gatsby” (2013), featuring stunning (if at times somewhat overdone) visuals and production values. As for the narrative treatment in this release, the balance between the dual plot threads involving Presley and Parker isn’t always balanced as well as it might have been, and some aspects of Presley’s life are given noticeably short shrift, such as his loving but often-stormy marriage to Priscilla and his struggles with substance abuse. Nevertheless, for a film with a 2:40:00 runtime, it’s remarkably well paced (save for a little sagging in the middle) and never loses viewer attention, thanks in large part to its energetic and vivid visuals. The real standout here, though, is the fine breakout, award-worthy performance of Austin Butler in the lead role, who imbues his take on the character with respectful credibility and successfully avoids making this well-known persona look like a caricature of himself, something that would be easy to do in lesser hands. This release may not be the silver screen epic it aspires to be, but it’s a fine way to spend a weekend afternoon at the theater, one that’s certainly better than much of what this year’s summer movie season has produced thus far.

In a world in need of innovation to confront its challenges and provide it with artistic fulfillment, we need more of us to step up and implement this concept to address these issues. Elvis may not have been the one to tackle some of these questions, but his inventive creative spirit – and his willingness to act on it – provides us with a template to draw from in these kinds of endeavors. To some, that may seem like a stretch; to others, that might be exactly the kind of platform that needs to slip into place. No matter how we view it, though, we should appreciate what such an innovative outlook can do for us, whether we’re looking to save the planet or simply come up with some toe-tapping tunes. In either of these undertakings, there’s one common rallying cry we should implement in connection with them both: Rock on!

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.