What This Year’s Oscars Showdown Between Tár and Elvis Tells Us About the State of Musical Films

The Oscar nominations are out today, and among the 10 Best Picture nominees are two films about the tragic pursuit of musical fame and how it can unravel you as a person. Both focus on individuals from humble beginnings who concoct over-the-top personalities, fall under the influence of powerful mentors, travel the world, wear immaculate suits, become feminized, find themselves at the center of controversy, and end up uncomfortable. Both resemble fever dreams, where the titular star is haunted by spirits and his own inner darkness. Both could easily be recut into horror films. Both are infinitely debatable. But only one of these films is good.

Todd Field’s Warehouse is many things: a ghost story, a meme, a parable about cancel culture, a lucid portrayal of power, a fuzzy ending, maybe offensive to female conductors, maybe offensive to lesbians, maybe all in the character’s head. It’s 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 opportunity in exchange for business. On the verge of its crowning glory, a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Tár’s repulsive behavior catches up with it or it destroys itself, depending on how you read it. Blanchett said her biggest inspiration in the way of Tár, her public intellectualism, was writer Susan Sontag, and the character is written so vividly you can swear she’s real.

As for Baz Luhrmann’s flashy take on Elvis Presley: Future generations may never hear Austin Butler’s true voice again, but it’s a worthy sacrifice. He went to bed, not only imitating one of the most imitated men of the 20th century, but become him, then carried away the corpse of Elvis (the movie, not the person) on his back. When I think of this film forever, Butler will help me forget the worst role of his co-star Tom Hanks’ career.

Take the scene where Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker discovers that Elvis is…panting-white. He’s just heard Presley’s cover of “That’s All Right,” and while the band roughly assesses the song’s “nigger beats” and “country flavor,” Parker insists that a singer of color like this one would not play the local ride. When country singer Jimmie Rodgers gleefully informs him of Elvis’ race, Parker mumbles through his inexplicable European accent, “He’s white???” followed by a dramatic pause and then, like a cash register ringing in his brain, a “he is white”—a clip so ridiculous that it went viral last summer. Parker then leads a high-speed pursuit to become Elvis’ manager before anyone else. I’ve watched this scene many times, chuckled at it, and urged my friends to seek it out because I’m shocked it exists in such a garish form. True to the realities of 1950s America, however, Luhrmann treats the reveal as a fun lesson in music history to tap dance everywhere in his usual fashion. The whole thing is badly conceived: America’s father is not a Dutch villain, and Colonel Parker is not the star of the Elvis series.

Leave a Comment