Elvis Presley, with the exception of the Beatles, is the most legendary figure in the history of popular music. As a result, he’s a very tempting subject for a biopic. However, telling his tale presents several unique challenges. Everything about Elvis (his rise and fall, as well as everything in between) is so ingrained in our memories that when you make a dramatic film about his life, you’re not just replicating mythology you’re competing with it. The question becomes: What can you add to the table that’s more cerebral and amazing than what really happened?
“Elvis,” Baz Luhrmann’s glamour-puss retelling of the King’s life, is a fizzy, delirious, impishly energetic, compulsively watchable two-hour-and-39-minute fever dream that converts the Elvis saga we all carry around in our heads into a lavishly staged biopic-as-pop-opera. Luhrmann isn’t interested in helming a typical biography of Elvis. And who would want him to? He shoots the works from one high point to the next, cutting out anything too mundane (Elvis’s entire decade of producing uninteresting Hollywood musicals whizzes by in an instant). He captures the king’s showbusiness heat and spins his music as well as how it was rooted in Black musical traditions like a spin-mixer across time.
Yet “Elvis,” despite its Luhrmannian pyrotechnics, is a perplexing film fascinating yet not always convincing, sweeping yet disorganized, with a main character whose life appears to be being illustrated rather than dramatized for much of the running length.
The actor Austin Butler, who plays Elvis, has bedroom eyes and cherubic lips and nails the king’s electric moves. He also does a passable impression of Elvis’ smoldering velvet voice. However, his resemblance to Elvis never quite reaches your solar plexus. Butler resembles more John Travolta crossed with Jason Priestly rather than Elvis, in my opinion, which is why this nags at you (perhaps) even though the most beautiful guy of the 20th century was (arguably) him. That smile was etched with a come-hither demon sneer from Elvis. We’ve spent the past fifty years in a world full of Elvis impersonators, and as with most of them, Butler has a similar closeness but not quite the real thing. He doesn’t have that hound-dog majesty about him that makes Elvis such an amazing performer.
From the first moments of “Elvis,” which begin with an undulating bejeweled version of the Warner Bros. logo, Liluhrmann has always had a flair for the dramatic that’s been complemented by his own flamboyance. The film establishes from the outset that it’ll push boundaries to get at the heart of Elvis’ story, and it doesn’t let us forget about it. There’s a gorgeous opening fanfare that engulfs the screen in split-screen imagery, chronicling how Elvis loomed over every phase – as the burning youngster whose hip-swiveling, leg-jittering gyrations knocked the stuffing out of our sexual propriety, and as the decadent Vegas showman who flogged his own legend until it was (no pun intended) larger-than-life.
The main problem with the film’s first half is that it makes Butler appear more appealing than he does in reality. The director was attempting to capture how Elvis, with his thrusts and eyeliner and inky black hair cascading over his face, was a one-man sexual earthquake who transformed the world. However, Elvis’ transformation of the world was so total and triumphant that it may now be difficult for a movie to convey how revolutionary it was. Its over-the-top shots of women at Elvis’s early shows erupting into spontaneous screams, or throwing underwear onto the stage, alongside scandalous headlines and finger-wagging moral guardians going hysterical over how Elvis was busting down racial barriers or promoting “indecency,” suggest that it is about an insurrectionary figure. The problem is that Luhrmann’s style is too ripely sexual, too post-Elvis to evoke what the world was like before Elvis.
We see Elvis as a young boy strolling into a Black tent-show revival, fusing with the writhing gospel he sees there, or cranking up “That’s All Right Mama” in a slow high blues wail. Then we get to hear what Elvis did to those songs, how he blended them with his own fast spirit. Elvis did indeed steal the blues, or at least borrowed them; nevertheless, the film demonstrates how he covered them with a fluffy layer of country optimism and his own white-boy exhibitionism. We’re plunged into Elvis’s blue-suede delight, then checked in to his heartbreak hotel, in The King’s Speech. In some ways, though, I wish that Luhrmann had told the story of Elvis in the insanely baroque, almost psychedelic style of Moulin Rouge! The film doesn’t have enough musical epiphanies moments that blow your mind and heart away with their rock ‘n’ roll magic for all of the Elvis songs on the soundtrack.
What “Elvis” never quite reveals to us, at least not until the better second half, is what was going on inside Elvis Presley. The film skitters across Elvis iconography but remains playfully detached from his soul for a while, acting like a graphic novel on amphetamines with a point of view supplied by his Mephistophelean manager Svengali (played by Tom Hanks) underneath pounds of padding and a horrible comb-over as a carny-barker showman with a hooked nose and gleam of evil in his eye.
The film structures itself as a tease by framing “Elvis” as if it were Parker’s self-justifying narrative: Will it truly show us that Parker, as he maintains in his voice-over narration, has gotten a bum rap from history? That he not only helped Presley’s career but also had his best interests at heart? It will not. However, Luhrmann indulges in an intriguing ambivalence when he portrays the Dutch-born, never legally emigrated (formerly known as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) Parker as a master flimflam artist who sees himself as the P.T Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll. In “Moulin Rouge!,” Hanks plays a cousin to Jim Broadbent’s nightclub impresario, who is just as corrupt and unscrupulous. Parker is a cousin to Jim Broadbent’s club impresario in “Moulin Rouge!” – a crook who will do and say anything to keep the show going. In 1955, Parker lucks into Elvis and manages his career till death do them part. Elvis is transformed into the Colonel’s hardworking show horse, becoming a victim of Stockholm syndrome; no matter how much he sees through the Colonel’s deceptions, he can’t bring himself to quit him. He spends his remaining years rebelling against him.
After his volcano erupts in the mid-’50s, Elvis’ career becomes a series of defeats and escapes in this film. To calm the debates sparked by Elvis’ release, the Colonel rebrands him “the new Elvis” (read: a ballad singer for the family) to make him happier. In 1958, Parker encourages Elvis to join the military as a means to repair his reputation. Elvis meets Priscilla, a teenager from Germany, in the film’s opening scene, but it’s one of the movie’s telling shortcomings that actress Olivia DeJonge registers strongly in an early shot but seldom gets to color in her performance. With its massive scope, “Elvis” (written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) has a strangely basic narrative. Hanks, on the other hand, gives a delicious piece of hamburger duplicity. But why aren’t there more blisteringly written scenes between Elvis and the Colonel? Or Elvis and Priscilla? The Colonel should’ve been a fascinating character, not a juicy trickster cartoon. If these ties had been fleshed out more, the tale might have flown off the screen.
The most obvious indicator that “Elvis” isn’t a conventional biopic is the fact that Luhrmann compresses virtually the entire 1960s into a two-minute campy montage, which parodies Elvis’s life as though it were one of his films. The film’s second part jumps ahead to Elvis’ 1968 comeback special, including the filming of it and the behind-the-scenes intrigue, which includes Parker making a deal with NBC that they will produce a Christmas show, only to have his plan thwarted at every turn by Elvis and show director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery). Of course, the comeback special was a success; however, Luhrmann’s attempts to make it appear as though it is a drama of sneaky rebellion don’t quite work.
The last third of the film, which takes place in Las Vegas during Elvis’s five-year stay at the International Hotel, is a knockout. It became a cliche to mock Elvis for having embraced the shameless Middle American crudeness of Las Vegas: the shows that opened with the 2001 “Also Sprach Zarathustra” fanfare, the karate moves, and the brassy orchestral music of his reworked “Battle Hymn of The Republic.” He was extremely uncontrollable, and he was also on drugs the entire time. What Luhrmann gets is that the Vegas years, in their white-suited glitz way, were trailblazing and spectacular — and that Col. Parker, in his avaricious way, was a showbusiness visionary for booking Elvis into that scenario. The film captures how Elvis gained some of his greatest singing performances there; as an apotheosis to the passionate ecstasy of “Burning Love,” he rendered himself immortal.
However, as “Elvis” demonstrates, Vegas became Presley’s prison for the same reason: Parker nailed him to an iron-clad contract for the most mercenary of reasons: The Colonel needed Elvis at the International to pay off his enormous gambling obligations, even if it meant that on stage (and eventually onstage) he turned into a slurry pill-popping phantom of himself. The more we identify with Elvis, the more trapped we feel. The finest irony in the film is that Butler’s acting as the young Elvis (the one who is much closer to his own age) is a good imitation of the real thing, but his act as the aging, devastated Elvis who regained success but lost everything was excellent. He’s livelier onstage than he was performing “Hound Dog,” and for the first time in the film, Elvis becomes a wrenching human being offstage. Luhrmann has created a dreadfully flawed yet occasionally moving drama that builds to something meaningful at its conclusion. The song has been set free at the end of the film.
Now playing on Netflix or CinemaHD.
Directed: Baz Luhrmann
Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Gary Clark Jr.
Running time: 159 minutes
Movie Rating: 4.5/5