Friday, December 22, 2017


Here's a movie that doesn't say much. It doesn't really have a plot, and when we think we're starting to see one take shape, it quickly vanishes. Yet, Armando Bo's The Last Elvis has moments of such beauty and inspiration that I can't stop thinking about it. I'm not sure if I can recommend it, or if you'd like it, and yet there is something in me that wants to hail it as a unique little masterpiece. 

The main character is Carlos Gutierrez  (John McInerny), a factory worker in Buenos Aires, Argentina. By day he works his dreary job, but at night he sings in seedy restaurants and wedding receptions as an Elvis impersonator. It's more than a side job, though. It's an obsession. He refers to himself as "Elvis," and calls his estranged wife "Priscilla." Naturally, their daughter is named "Lisa Marie," which is also stenciled on the side of his old Ford LTD. One wonders what came first, the car or the girl.

He lives alone in a rundown little house, surrounded by Elvis memorabilia. At one point a female visitor (possibly a hooker) offers him a blow job. He can't be bothered, because he's entranced by an old Elvis interview on TV. We sense his marriage ended because he wasn't a reliable father. He was too busy, as his wife says, "singing his silly songs." He practices his Elvis act diligently, but is constantly struggling to get paid. Some of the best scenes in the movie involve him visiting the talent agency's office, where various other showbiz lookalikes mill about while waiting for their paychecks. Apparently, Buenos Aires is chock-full of Barbra Streisands, John Lennons, Mick Jaggers, and Kiss wannabes.

But Gutierrez is more than a lookalike, and you wouldn't dare tell him otherwise. For one thing, he can actually sing. He doesn't look much like Elvis, but he embodies something about him, the easy swagger, the cool vibe. He may look like a white whale when he squeezes into his jumpsuit, but Gutierrez has more panache than a dozen Las Vegas Presleys. Trying to gain weight to play the late period Elvis, he even stuffs himself with peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

Eventually, his wife is injured in a car accident, which means Gutierrez has to look after his daughter. He feeds her banana sandwiches, and serenades her with Elvis songs before she goes to sleep. Father and daughter grow close, and we imagine the movie may move in this direction, where the little girl supports her dad's strange dream of being Elvis. Instead, the mother snaps out of her coma and this part of the story line ends. (We do, however, notice his wife trying to cover a tattoo on her arm; later we see that it says, "Love Me Tender.")

Serious Elvis fans may pick up clues of how the movie will play out. For instance, Gutierrez makes a big deal of rehearsing "Unchained Melody," which he eventually performs - beautifully, I might add - for an audience of old ladies at a bingo hall. This song appeared on Elvis' final studio album, and was often performed during his final tour in 1977. It was perhaps his final great performance, a vocal high-wire act. Gutierrez, getting fatter and fatter, and focusing on Presely's late period music, appears to be tracing Elvis' steps in the months before he died. I'll say no more, but McInerny, who hasn't appeared in many movies, is tremendous as Gutierrez. I loved how he sings "You Were Always on My Mind" at a senior citizens' home, and his version of "The Hawaiian Wedding Song," sung to his daughter, is spellbinding. I'm familiar with  Elvis' music because my mother owned his albums, so I know McInerny is nailing every last nuance. There's power to this guy. He may be a slow moving train, but he's a train, nonetheless.

The movie isn't overburdened by dialog. Bo is best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Birdman, another film where a man's alter-ego overwhelms him. But in that one, people talked too much. In The Last Elvis, Gutierrez is a simple man, not given to grand pronouncements. "God gave me a gift," he says. "I just accepted it." He's crazy, too. He sings well and seems like a decent chap, but there's a screw loose. The movie made me wonder why so many people want to be someone else. It also made me wonder why, whether you're dressed as Elvis or Britney Spears, and whether you're insane or not, you still have to stand in line to get a paycheck. And sometimes you don't get one.


This movie is available on DVD, and on the Fandor movie app.

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