Elvis Presley, barring the Beatles, is the most mythological figure in the history of popular music. This makes him a singularly tempting figure to construct a biopic. But it also makes telling his story a unique challenge. Everything about Elvis (the rise, the fall, everything in between) is so deeply etched in our imaginations that when you make a dramatic feature film about the life of Elvis Presley, you don’t not just channeling mythology – you’re competing with that. The challenge is: what can you bring to the table that’s more captivating and impressive than the real thing?
Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is a bubbly, delirious, mischievous and compulsively watchable 2 hour and 39 minute fever dream – a reel of a movie that converts the Elvis saga we all carry in our heads into a lavish staging biopic-like-opera-pop. Luhrmann, who made this masterpiece of “Moulin Rouge!” (and in 20 years has never come close to equaling him), is not interested in doing a conventional biography of Elvis. And who would? Luhrmann films the works, jumping from climax to climax, cutting out anything too prosaic (Elvis’ entire decade churning out bland Hollywood musicals passes in the blink of an eye). He taps into the Elvis of our daydreams, scorching us with the heat of the king’s showbiz and spinning his music – and how it was rooted in the genius of black musical forms – like a mix-master through time.
Yet “Elvis”, for all its Luhrmannian fireworks, is a strange film – convincing but not always convincing, both radical and dispersed, with a central character whose life, for a long period, gives the impression that it is not so much dramatized as illustrated. .
Austin Butler, the 30-year-old actor who plays Elvis, has bedroom eyes and cherub lips and nails the king’s electrostatic moves. It also does a pretty good imitation of Elvis’ sultry velvet train. Yet his resemblance to Elvis never really hits you in the solar plexus. Butler looks more like the young John Travolta crossed with Jason Priestly, and I think the reason this nags one isn’t just because Elvis was (arguably) the most handsome man of the 20th century. It’s also that Butler, while he knows how to bring good ol’ boy sex appeal, doesn’t have Elvis’ sex appeal. hazard. Elvis had a demon look coming here nestled in that flicker of a smile. We’ve lived in a world of Elvis impersonators for half a century, and Butler, like most of them, has a quality that’s close but not real. He doesn’t quite invoke Elvis’ inner aura of hound-dog majesty.
Luhrmann has always had the fearlessness of his own flamboyance, and from the first moments of “Elvis,” which starts with an outrageous version adorned with the Warner Bros. logo, the film lets us know it’s going to risk the vulgarity of touch the essence of the Elvis saga. There’s a luscious opening fanfare of split-screen footage, showing us how Elvis loomed every step of the way – as the smoking child whose gyrations of shaking hips and legs upended our sexual propriety, and as the showman Vegas decadent who whipped up his own legend until he was (no pun intended) larger than life.
But the way Butler presents himself as more harmless than the real Elvis ties into the key problem of the film’s first half. Luhrmann is here to capture how Elvis, with his push-ups and eyeliner and inky black hair falling across his face, was a one-man sex quake that remade the world. Yet Elvis’ transformation of the world was, in fact, so utter and triumphant that it’s now nearly impossible for a film to capture just how drastic he was. “Elvis” keeps telling us that he is an insurrectionary figure. The irony is that Luhrmann’s style is too maturely sensual, too post-Elvis, to evoke what the world was like. before Elvis.
We see Elvis as a boy sneaking into a revival of a black tent show, merging with the twisted gospel he encounters there, or hearing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) sing “That’s All Right.” Mama” in a slow, high-pitched blues. lament. Then we hear what Elvis did with that music, syncing it to his own fast-paced mind. Elvis stole the blues, okay, or at least borrowed them, but the film shows us how he frosted them with a bouncy layer of country optimism and his own white-boy exhibitionism. The film immerses us in the blue suede happiness of Elvis, then takes us, after a while, to his harrowing hotel. In a way, though, I wish Luhrmann had told the story of Elvis in the incredibly baroque, almost hallucinogenic way of “Moulin Rouge!” For all the Elvis tunes on the soundtrack, the film doesn’t have enough musical epiphanies – scenes that blow your mind and heart with their rock ‘n’ roll magic.
And what “Elvis” never quite shows us, at least not until its upper second half, is what was going on inside Elvis Presley. For a while, the film plays like an amphetamine graphic novel, slipping on Elvis iconography but remaining playfully detached from his soul. Instead, he filters his story through the perspective of his Mephistophelian Svengali manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who is played by Tom Hanks, under pounds of padding and a hideous comb, as a carny-barker showman. with a hooked nose and an evil glint in his eyes.
By framing “Elvis” as if it were Parker’s self-righteous story, the film sets itself up like a matchstick: will it really show us that Parker, as he claims in his voice-over narration , has been mistreated by history? That he not only made Presley’s career, but had his best interests at heart? No, it won’t. Yet Luhrmann, in presenting Parker (née Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk), born in the Netherlands and never having emigrated legally, as a flimflam master who considered himself the PT Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll, revels in a certain fascinating ambivalence. Hanks, with his twirling mustache accent and miserly glow, makes Parker a cousin of Jim Broadbent’s nightclub impresario in “Moulin Rouge!” – a corrupt showman who will do and say anything to keep the show going. Parker clings to Elvis in 1955, then stages his career within an inch of his life. Elvis, who has become the colonel’s assiduous competition horse, is a victim of Stockholm syndrome; no matter how well he sees through the Colonel’s schemes, he can’t bring himself to leave him. Yet he spends the rest of his life rebelling against him.
The film shows us how Elvis’ career, after his volcanic eruption in the mid-1950s, became a series of defeats and escapes. To calm the controversies that Elvis first inspired, the Colonel repackages him as “the new Elvis” (read: a singer of family ballads), which only makes Elvis miserable. To further defuse the attacks on him, Parker, in 1958, encouraged Elvis to join the army in order to clean up his image. Stationed in Germany, Elvis meets teenage Priscilla – but it’s one of the film’s telling flaws that the actress who plays her, Olivia DeJonge, registers strongly in an early scene but barely gets a chance to color his performance. Given the film’s epic ambition, the script for “Elvis” (by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner) is an oddly stripped-down affair. Hanks delivers a performance that’s a luscious piece of hambon duplicity, but why aren’t there more piercing written scenes between Elvis and the Colonel? Or Elvis and Priscilla? The Colonel should have been a great character, not some luscious cartoon trickster. If these relations had been enriched, the story would perhaps have taken on greater importance.
That Luhrmann compresses most of the 1960s into a campy two-minute montage, which parodies Elvis’ life as if it were one of his films, is the clearest sign that “Elvis” doesn’t is not an orthodox biopic. The film’s second act leaps forward to Elvis’ 1968 comeback special – the making of it and behind-the-scenes politics, which involve Parker promising NBC they’re going to have a Christmas special, a plan that we see undermined at every turn by Elvis and the show’s director, Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery). The comeback special was of course a triumph, but the way Luhrmann tries to frame it as a sly rebellion drama doesn’t quite pan out.
What stands out with surprising power is the final third of the film, which takes place in Las Vegas during Elvis’ five-year residency at the International Hotel. For years, it’s become a cliché to poke fun at Elvis for embracing the unabashed middle-American vulgarity of Vegas: the shows that opened with “2001’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” fanfare, the moves of karate, the brassy orchestral sound of songs like his reconfigured “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. And, of course, he was on drugs all the time. What Luhrmann understands is that the Vegas years, in their glitzy, white-suited way, were pioneering and prodigious — and that Colonel Parker, in his greedy way, was a showbiz visionary for booking Elvis in that setting. The film shows how Elvis performed some of his greatest works there as a singer, culminating in the avid ecstasy of “Burning Love.”
Yet as “Elvis” dramatizes, Vegas has also become Presley’s prison, because Parker nailed him to a ruthless contract, and for the most scurrilous motives: the Colonel needed Elvis at the International to pay off his own mountainous gambling debts, even if it meant the singer, offstage (and, ultimately, onstage), became a muddy, pill-stuffed ghost of himself. Our identification with Elvis only deepens when we realize that he is “trapped”. The film’s richest irony is that Butler’s performance as a young Elvis (one much closer to his age) is an effective shadow of reality, but his performance as an aging and saddened Elvis, who rediscovered success but lost everything, is splendid. He’s more alive onstage than he was on “Hound Dog,” and offstage, for the first time in film, Elvis becomes a heartbreaking human being. Luhrmann has produced woefully flawed but at times gripping drama that morphs into something moving and true. At the end, the film’s melody was unleashed.