Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is exactly what you would expect a Baz Luhrmann directed biopic of the rise and fall of Elvis Presley to be. Which is to say, fabulous and frustrating by equal measure. The cast, choreography and cinematography are captivating. In Austin Butler, Luhrmann could hardly have found a better, more electrically charged, lead. When the finale bleeds from dramatic to documentary filming, the transition is seamless. Where Luhrmann falters is in an approach to narrative which lacks depth, nuance and all that might allow the film to compel beneath its glittering surface. It’s so Baz it’s good…and bad.
Perhaps taking note from his dabbles with Gatsby, almost a decade ago now, Luhrmann’s Elvis focuses less exclusively on young snake hips than on the “snowman” who put the super in his nova. Colonel Tom Parker is the more Machiavellian Nick Carraway of this tale. Under thick prosthetic layers – and a thicker accent still – Tom Hanks reminds of Michael Keaton’s Founder in playing him. Perhaps it’s the hat?
Hanks gives a performance of great flavour and yet, as written, it’s one rarely more than superficial. When Butler drawls, early in the film, that there are only two types of people: the good and bad, it is transparently clear that Luhrmann both believes it and deems it development enough. As for the Colonel, there’s genuine disbelief in his early assertion that “there are some who make me out to be the villain of this story!”
In any case, who has time for insight when there is a rollicking story to tell? From the off, Luhrmann’s pace is breathlessly exciting. His screen explodes with headline graphics, lightning fast edits and animated excess like the very best of firework displays. It’s pitch perfect sensory overload. A Vegas infused smorgasbord, on to which contemporary and modern beats combine effortlessly before giving way to a soundscape that is pure Presley. While the film makes no attempt to hide its hero’s creative inspirations – namely, black artists of the era – the lack of criticism is uncomfortable. It is blatantly deemed outrageous for Parker to financially exploit our boy but Luhrmann is uninterested in questioning the morality of Elvis himself building a career on the stolen sounds of paper thin, largely sidelined black characters.
It’s a sort of loose approach to time that sees the early swathes of the film hop back and forth, jumping between Elvis’ wunderkind childhood and naïve early adulthood. In his formative years, Luhrmann presents Elvis’ musical awakening as a moment of spiritual transcendence. His eyes flutter and body gyrates beyond his own control as rhythm and soul flow through him. It’s ecstasy, with religious overtones that will recur later with the adoration of his devoted followers. Years on, we meet Elvis the devoted son, a youth almost too shy to sing before a crowd.
Hereafter, the film sketches a very loose picture of how a boy embarrassed to admit his own self belief becomes a global megastar whose brash stage presence is seen as a legitimate threat to American morality. There are wry, whip smart, choices along the way but, even at an exuberant 159 minutes, the film feels rushed as it gallops towards a tragic conclusion. Notable details are either missed – Elvis and Nixon – or sanitised – Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge – wasted) was just fourteen on meeting Elvis – while the final years are compressed into a pithy two scenes.
All told, Elvis works largely as a prestige jukebox and crowd pleaser. The finale in a trilogy that began with Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. Butler is outstanding. That he nails the vocals and “wiggling” too just adds to the pleasure of watching him embody the role. He brings pathos too. There’s desperately painful foreshadowing in knowing that Elvis will never truly know the cultural impact his sound and style will go on to have upon generation after generation. There’s truth in that old urban legend. Elvis isn’t dead and never will be.