I’m having a really hard time with Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
I would like to apologize in advance for my own personal biases leaking into this review, but with my affinity for the subject it is very hard to be completely objective. In any case, what is objectivity when it comes to movie reviews? We are all simply reacting to art, some critics are better at compartmentalizing their own feelings and focusing more strictly on the positive and negative aspects of the art that is presented to us, but with a film like Elvis, that feels false.
Luhrmann has never been a filmmaker who wants you to think; he wants you to feel, to be swept up in the experience and emotion of his work. He wants us to react to it on a visceral rather than a logical level, and Elvis certainly expects that of its audience, though its methods are suspect. Impeccable staging, stunning art direction, amazing music, and decent performances from all of our leads are enough to sate the casual viewer, perhaps, but digging deeper raises questions that I wish I didn’t have.
I was born two years after Elvis Presley had permanently left the building, but I was raised with his music, as many Gen X/Y kids were. Our parents and grandparents grew up with the legend in the flesh, and he was ever-present in our lives. Something about Elvis spoke to me, I loved the music, I loved the movies, I researched his life and death, I saw how it connected to the (then) present day of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that was thirty years ago.
Luhrman’s epic (one hundred and fifty-nine minute) overstuffed ode to a pop culture icon is just as sparkly and blisteringly paced as you’d expect from the man who made Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and especially Moulin Rouge!, but it somehow still manages to paint only the shallowest portrait of a deeply complicated man with a very conflicted existence.
One reason Elvis feels disjointed is the decision to tell his story from the point of view of the man who both made and broke him, Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ storied and controversial manager from his earliest days. Luhrmann takes the structure of Milos Forman’s vastly superior Amadeus – a mentor confessing to the murder of a genius under his tutelage – and tries to use it to portray Elvis as a problem child who couldn’t be tamed, even by a man who proposed to be his protector.
Parker is here performed by Tom Hanks with all the subtlety of Mike Myers’ Johann “Goldfinger” van der Smutt from the third Austin Powers film. The colonel finds young Elvis (Austin Butler) playing on the Louisiana Hayride and immediately snaps him up after Presley’s violently gyrating hips cause an entire auditorium of (white) women to lose their goddamned minds. Seeing an opportunity to exploit a kid with a special talent, Parker connives and concocts plans to take this freak show national, with unintended, but lucrative, results.
This film essentially follows Presley’s career from Parker’s perspective all the way from 1954 though the King’s death in 1977, with every last minute of Elvis’ success and failure tied to choices made by the Colonel. This may have been true. Col. Tom Parker was a figure who loomed large in Presley’s life, but the framing of Presley as a supporting cast member in his own story is troubling, as is the depiction of his relationship with (a) the movies, (b) fame, (c) the black rhythm and blues community whose backs he profited from, (d) drugs, (e) his wife and child, and (f) everything else he came in contact with.
The first half of Elvis is like stepping into a vision of early rock ‘n roll wonderland. Elvis grows up poor and enamored of black R & B singers in his small town of Tupelo, equally riveted by the sultry sounds of the blues and the energy of black gospel music. Harnessing that energy to bring black music to white people – in a way that is not directly dismissive of those artists, but certainly not entirely respectful – as well as finding himself pariah enough to seek repentance in the Army after his hips do permanent damage to the psyches of (white) American women. Most of this stuff checks out and is treated with some reverence by the film and filmmaker, and this is where Butler really shines.
Watching Austin Butler swivel his hips in those incredible suits on stage with Bill Black (Adam Dunn) and Scotty Moore (Xavier Samuel), two of my personal icons, was thrilling and perhaps the next best thing to being there. For all of its shortcomings, one cannot fault the costume design (Catherine Martin) or art direction and production design (Damian Drew/Catherine Martin & Karen Murphy); both elements are spectacular, and I would wear every single stitch of clothing that is draped elegantly across Butler’s frame in this film. The cinematography by Mandy Walker is every bit a match for Luhrmann’s lurid visuals as well, turning a period piece into a modern affair with ease.
But those technical elements, while stunning and hard to argue with, do not necessarily a movie make. Luhrmann’s refusal to engage with the more complicated elements of Elvis’ connections to the Black community (they all seem to love him here, though many would later recall how he stole their music), his relationships with drugs and alcohol, all shown here as a result of Parker’s manipulations, and his wife and child, his later years without Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), or really anything of substance is a disappointment.
With over two and a half hours to work with, Luhrmann still manages to skip almost the entire decade of the ‘60s, while lingering on the period between the pivotal ’68 Comeback Special and the beginning of his Vegas stint in 1971. While Elvis isn’t exactly a hagiography, it definitely is convenient with its choices in a way that feels lazy. It was just three years ago that Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman proved that a warts-and-all musical biopic could be something special, so why avoid that here?
I’m an Elvis lover, I’m a lover of musicals, a lover of melodrama, a lover of spectacle, and a lover of bombast. Luhrmann’s film has all of these elements in spades, and yet it still rings incredibly hollow, and that onus falls entirely on him. Every person involved in this project is obviously giving their all; performances are solid, it’s a technical marvel, and it’s executed marvelously, but it still feels empty, and decades too late.
I feel like Elvis is the kind of movie I’m going to watch over and over again in slavish devotion to the King, hoping to find the Rosetta Stone that unlocks its majesty for me; maybe it’s hiding in there somewhere, but right now, I just don’t see it.