Music

What this year’s Oscar showdown between Tár and Elvis tells us about the state of musical films

The Oscar nominations came out today, and among the 10 Best Picture nominees are two films about the tragic pursuit of musical glory and how it can unravel you as a person. Both focus on individuals with humble beginnings who create over-the-top personas, fall under the influence of powerful mentors, travel the world, wear impeccable suits, womanize, end up at the center of controversy and bottom out in unpleasant ways. Both feel like fever dreams, with the titular star haunted by spirits and their own inner darkness. Both could easily be recut as horror films. Both parts can be discussed endlessly. But only one of these movies is good.

Todd Field’s Warehouse is many things: a ghost story, a meme, a parable about cancellation culture, a clear-eyed portrayal of power, a nebulous ending, possibly offensive to female conductors, possibly offensive to lesbians, possibly all in the character’s head. It is easily one of the best films of the year. Cate Blanchett’s superstar conductor, Lydia Tár, leads orchestras with the pretentiousness and perversity of so many men before her, dangling opportunities in exchange for affairs. On the brink of her crowning achievement, a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Tár’s obnoxious behavior either catches up with her or she destroys herself, depending on how you read it. Blanchett has said that her biggest inspiration for Tár’s manner, her public intellectualism, was author Susan Sontag, and the character is so vividly written you might swear she’s real.

As for Baz Luhrmann’s flashy take on Elvis Presley: Future generations may never hear Austin Butler’s real voice again, but it’s a worthy sacrifice. He laid down and imitated not only one of the most imitated men of the 20th century, but be him, and then carried off the dead body Elvis (the movie, not the person) on the back. When I think about this movie forever, Butler will help me forget the worst role of his co-star Tom Hanks’ career.

Take the scene where Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker finds out that Elvis is…gasp-white. He’s just heard Presley’s cover of “That’s All Right,” and when the group scoffs at the song’s “negro rhythms” and “country flavor,” Parker insists that a colored singer like this wouldn’t play the local hayride. When country singer Jimmie Rodgers gleefully informs him of Elvis’ race, Parker mutters through his inexplicable European accent, “He’s white???” followed by a dramatic pause and then, like a cash register going off in his brain, a more certain “He is white”—a clip so ridiculous that it went viral last summer. Parker then leads a high-speed chase to become Elvis’ manager before anyone else. I’ve seen this scene many times, laughed at it, and encouraged friends to seek it out because I’m shocked that it exists in such a blatant form. However true to the realities of 1950s America, Luhrmann treats the reveal as a fun music history lesson to tap dance all over in his usual campy fashion. It’s all ill-conceived: America’s father isn’t a Dutch villain, and Colonel Parker isn’t the star of the Elvis show.

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