Baz Luhrmann's Elvis fails to shake up the myth of music legend
Doing a “standard” biopic about Elvis Presley in this day and age would be a fool’s errand; as the biggest selling solo artist of all time, his life and everything in it has already been dissected a million times over. That includes movies and documentaries specifically about him, others that use that use his larger-than-life presence as part of another period story, and still others that use his now-iconic face and voice in ways that have nothing to do with his life.
If anybody can be counted on to not do the typical biopic, it’s writer/director Baz Luhrmann, last seen on the big screen with 2013’s The Great Gatsby. Best known for fantastical films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, his visual style would seem to be a great fit to show the life of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Unfortunately, as the overlong Elvis shows, it’s one thing to have style, but if you don’t have the substance to back it up, you’re in for a bad landing.
The film may be named Elvis, but Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner are almost equally interested in the persona of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). As depicted in the film, Parker — then the leader of a traveling carnival — learns about the up-and-coming Presley (Austin Butler) and sets his mind to making him a star. With his guidance, Elvis goes from a singing truck driver in Memphis to the biggest star in the world in a relatively short period of time.
It's a generally accepted fact that there would be no Elvis as we know him today without Colonel Parker, but it still feels strange to make the movie be as much — or, arguably, more — about Parker than it is about Elvis. There’s also a lot — too much — that you have to infer about the relationship between Elvis and Parker, as Luhrmann is not inclined to dig deep into their bond. But he spends plenty of time on Parker’s gambling addiction, as if understanding that would unlock all the secrets in the story.
At 159 minutes, the film is much too long, mostly because Luhrmann uses its long running time in odd ways. He becomes obsessed with individual moments, showing them in great detail from multiple angles and using different techniques to try to enhance them. But then he’ll skip over large periods of time, giving the audience little clue as to what happened in the intervening months or years. Also, if you’re prone to seizures, it’s best not to see the film as the number of edits it contains is mind-boggling.
The biggest disappointment is that it never truly makes modern audiences understand why Elvis was as popular as he was. In a laughable scene the first time we see Elvis perform, girls in the audience are screaming the second that Elvis starts wiggling his hips. But there’s little context as to why they would be reacting in such a manner, especially to someone they don’t know, making it feel like Luhrmann is forcing the issue instead of getting to it organically.
You also never feel why Elvis’ music was so transformative. Most performance scenes are chopped up into small pieces, so the impact of individual songs is lessened. And then Luhrmann makes the stylistic choice to include modern hip-hop reinterpretations of some songs on the soundtrack, seeming to give more import to those versions than the originals.
And you can forget about finding out anything about Elvis’ personal relationships. His wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is present, but how their relationship started or what it meant in Elvis’ life is absent from the film. He is shown to have a friendship with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and that he had a reverence for music created by R&B singers, but the filmmakers never interrogate Elvis using Black music as a way to make himself a star.
As for the main performances, there are times when Butler is absolutely electric. Perhaps even a little too handsome to play Elvis, he gives his all to the role, delivering a convincing performance along the way. Hanks’ acting will be polarizing; his choice of accent is downright strange and anything else he does is overshadowed by the heavy prosthetics he has to wear.
It’s unclear who Elvis is supposed to be for, as it services neither the hardcore fans who grew up on his music, a younger generation that might be interested in learning more about the mythical musical figure, or film buffs who have enjoyed Luhrmann’s previous movies. It’s a strange, overstuffed slog of a film in desperate need of better filmmaking decisions.
Elvis opens in theaters on June 24.