I don’t like Baz Luhrmann. Never been a fan.
It’s frustrating because the guy has his own distinct brand of overblown razzle-dazzle. There’s nobody else who can do what he does quite like how he does it. That’s exactly what made Moulin Rouge! such a perennial musical guilty pleasure. Trouble is, that movie was specifically built from the ground up to suit Luhrmann’s campy and decadent excess.
I know his take on “Romeo and Juliet” has its fans, but I couldn’t sign off on that picture for the same reason I couldn’t approve of his “Great Gatsby” adaptation. In both cases, the man crammed in so many anachronisms and extreme close-ups and frenetic editing choices that Luhrmann simply couldn’t get out of his own goddamn way and tell the story.
So here we are with Elvis, a cradle-to-grave biopic about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A project that might as well have had Baz Luhrmann’s name written on it in towering neon letters. And this 150-minute movie gets off to a terribly rocky start.
See, this isn’t just the story of Elvis Aaron Presley (Austin Butler) — it’s also the story of Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, alias Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). For the uninitiated, Parker started out as a carnival barker until he moved on to serve as Elvis’ manager while bleeding his client dry for every possible cent. A title card at the end of the film helpfully tells us that when Parker died in 1997, he was buried under his gambling debts. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film opens with Parker on his deathbed in ’97. Parker then proceeds to narrate the film through a barrage of nonsensical Vegas-themed CGI and editing that keeps jumping between time periods. I might add that Parker is an unrepentant con artist, thus we’re stuck with an unreliable and unsympathetic narrator through the entire film.
Perhaps most importantly, we’re stuck with a wretched performance from Tom Hanks, watching him try to emote through ugly makeup and a slapdash accent. His performance here is very much like Luhrmann’s filmmaking aesthetic: Inconsistent, incoherent, blatantly artificial, desperate to throw everything at the camera to see what sticks, and we’re stuck watching it in extreme close-up through the entire picture.
Now for the good news: It gets better. As the movie settles into its groove, the godawful montages and inconsistent onscreen graphics are less obstructive and obnoxious. (A childhood flashback in the first act is illustrated as a comic book, for the gods’ sake.) Maybe I was just getting used to Luhrmann’s style, or maybe it’s because the movie shifted its focus to its strongest aspect: Elvis himself.
Austin Butler is a godsend. It’s nothing short of a miracle that precisely when Armie Hammer’s career tanked, the heavens sent us Austin Butler to take his place. Butler’s performance here is transformative, perfectly delivering the innate and overpowering charisma that made Elvis Presley a musical icon and sex symbol worldwide. I can’t possibly overstate how impressive it is that Butler was somehow able to deliver Presley’s vocal affectations consistently throughout the entire film and he made it sound effortlessly natural. Never once did the southern drawl or the “thankyouverymuch” sound like a joke, Butler straight-up fucking sold it as the way this man talks.
An unfortunate downside is that Butler is stuck going through the typical biopic motions. We’ve got our protagonist’s humble upbringing, we’ve got the rise to fame and fortune, we’ve got the friends and trusted associates who we know will eventually betray him, then the betrayal comes, our protagonist rallies to close the film on a poignant note, it’s all here. We’ve seen this exact same plot in Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Respect, Straight Outta Compton, and too many other musical biopics to count.
In The King, a documentary film that came out back in 2017, Ethan Hawke made the observation that whenever Elvis Presley was faced with two choices, he invariably took the path that offered him more money. (And where did it get him? Dead on a toilet at age 42.) In Luhrmann’s film, this is because while Elvis was out to do whatever made him fulfilled as an artist, the Colonel was only out for the money. Thus we get scene after scene of conflict between the two that ends with the Colonel swindling Elvis into getting his way.
This all gets to be unavoidably prominent in the back half, after Elvis returns from his military service to find that the world has moved on without him. From this point on, Elvis is let down by everyone he ever trusted and he spirals into drug addiction and we’re all counting down the minutes until he dies on the toilet. (A detail never mentioned in the film, by the way.) In all honesty, I’d argue the whole movie would’ve been better if Elvis’ residency in Vegas had been cut entirely and the movie closed out on his triumphant ’68 comeback special.
So what does this particular musical biopic bring to the table? You know, other than Baz Luhrmann’s pomposity?
Well, I think the strongest point in the movie’s favor is in how it addresses Presley’s appropriation of black culture. It’s a point regrettably lost on mainstream knowledge that rock ‘n’ roll grew out of gospel and R&B, pioneered by such black musicians as Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Richard, B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Willie Mae Thornton, and others. Indeed, a great many of those icons are portrayed in the film and given showstopping musical numbers. Special mention is due to Alton Mason, kicking ass and breaking hearts all up and down the screen with only one scene as Little Richard.
In the film, Elvis is portrayed as a southern boy who fell in love with black music. This is the music that makes him happy, it’s what moves him as a person and it’s what inspired him to become a musician in the first place. He’s passionate about it, and he’s sharing that passion with the world. Of course he’s going to follow his muse and make the art that he’s happy performing.
Of course, the film also takes great pains in portraying the backlash against Elvis Presley as a miscreant who encourages juvenile delinquency and drives young women to indecent sexual frenzies and so on and so forth. (In the movie, Elvis points out that his own mother approves of his onstage gyrations, which I personally found to be an amusing counterpoint.) With all of that said, the film makes it abundantly clear that all this backlash is based entirely in racism.
Elvis is bringing black music to a young white audience and the segregationists don’t like it. This really was Presley’s greatest legacy more than anything else — rock ‘n’ roll certainly existed before he came along, but oppressed black musicians could never take it worldwide like Elvis could. In a way, he used rock ‘n’ roll to unite people across racial barriers in a way that hasn’t been done before or since.
(Side note: For a more modern comparison, this is why goddamn Vanilla Ice was such a huge deal back in 1990, when he more or less did the same thing for rap music. Say what you will about him, but he was the first white guy who really made rap and hip-hop accessible to an audience outside black culture, paving the way for Eminem to do the same thing but infinitely better about ten years later.)
Time and again, the film repeatedly brings up race as a motivating factor for Elvis. At all times, our protagonist is acutely aware of the debt he owes to black culture, and significant screen time is given to his reactions after MLK and Bobby Kennedy get shot.
That being said, the film conveniently glosses over how black musicians of the time might have felt about Elvis appropriating their music and their culture. Potentially worse, the film introduces Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) as “a teenager”, conveniently ignoring the detail that she was 14 and Elvis was 24 when they first met. Freaking yikes.
That said, Presley’s surviving relatives have publicly given the film their enthusiastic blessing, so there’s that.
Basically, what we’ve got with Elvis is an overlong musical biopic that glamorizes its central figure and glosses over any associated controversies while delivering a starmaking performance from its lead actor. I could say the same for pretty much any other biopic released in recent memory, and the film does indeed follow many of the same plot beats. But for better or worse, a film can only be so boilerplate when Baz Luhrmann is involved. Much as I don’t approve of his methods, they certainly make for a memorable film if nothing else.
There’s a lot about this film I didn’t like and a lot about the by-the-numbers plot that left me bored. On the other hand, while I can bring myself to overlook an uncharacteristically bad performance from Tom Hanks and characteristically overblown direction from Baz Luhrmann, I simply can’t ignore the transcendent performance from Austin Butler or the marvelous musical numbers. On those grounds, I can give the film a recommendation with adjusted expectations.