How you feel about Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis will depend largely on how you feel about Baz Luhrmann’s signature brash, glitter-bomb maximalism. Just the hyper-caffeinated establishing section alone — even before Austin Butler’s locomotive hips start doing their herky-jerky thing when Elvis Presley takes to the stage to perform “Heartbreak Hotel” in a rockabilly-chic pink suit — leaves you dizzy with its frenetic blast of scorching color, split screen, retro graphics and more edits per scene than a human eye can count. Add in the stratified, ear-bursting sound design and this is Baz times a bazillion.
If the writing too seldom measures up to the astonishing visual impact, the affinity the director feels for his showman subject is both contagious and exhausting. Luhrmann’s taste for poperatic spectacle is evident all the way, resulting in a movie that exults in moments of high melodrama as much as in theatrical artifice and vigorously entertaining performance.
As for the big question of whether Butler could pull off impersonating one of the most indelible icons in American pop-culture history, the answer is an unqualified yes. His stage moves are sexy and hypnotic, his melancholy mama’s-boy lost quality is swoon-worthy and he captures the tragic paradox of a phenomenal success story who clings tenaciously to the American Dream even as it keeps crumbling in his hands.
But the heart of this biopic is tainted, thanks to a screenplay whose choppy patchwork feel perhaps directly correlates to its complicated billing — by Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromell and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner; story by Baz Luhrmann and Jeremy Doner. That mouthful suggests an amalgam of various versions, though the big hurdle is the off-putting character piloting the narrative, who creates a hole at its center.
That would be “Colonel” Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks in arguably the least appealing performance of his career — a creepy, beady-eyed leer from under a mountain of latex, with a grating, unidentifiable accent that becomes no less perplexing even after the character’s murky Dutch origins have been revealed. It’s a big risk to tell your story through the prism of a morally repugnant egotist, a financial abuser who used his manipulative carnival-barker skills to control and exploit his vulnerable star attraction, driving him to exhaustion and draining him of an outsize proportion of his earnings.
Every time the action cuts back to Hanks’ Parker near the end of his life — refuting his designated role as the villain of the story from a Las Vegas casino floor where he ran up gambling debts that necessitated keeping Elvis under a lucrative International Hotel residency contract — the movie falters. As portrayed here and elsewhere, Parker was a self-serving con man who monopolized the star’s artistic and personal freedom and now gets to monopolize the retelling of his life. Elvis the movie works better when Elvis the man is a creation of ringmaster Luhrmann’s feverish imagination than when Parker keeps popping up to remind us, “I made Elvis Presley.”
The subject’s musical formation is illustrated in enjoyably florid Southern Gothic style as the young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) is seen growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, moving to a poor Black neighborhood after his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), is briefly jailed for passing a bad check.
Watching through the cracks in the walls of juke joints or from under the tent flaps of holy-roller revival meetings, Elvis absorbs influences that would allow him to fuse bluegrass with R&B, gospel and country, and create a sound unprecedented from a white vocalist. In one amusingly wild flourish, the roots of the “lewd gyrations” that would inflame screaming fans and conservative watchdogs in their respective ways are traced to the boy being physically possessed by the spirit during a religious service.
As they did in The Great Gatsby and elsewhere, Luhrmann and longtime music supervisor Anton Monsted freely mash up period and contemporary tunes once the teenage Elvis, his family by now relocated to Memphis, starts hanging out on Beale Street, where he befriends the young B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and thrills to the gospel sounds of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (English musician Yola). Given that Elvis’ vocal style drew from multiple inspirations, it makes sense for swaggering hip-hop and Elvis covers by a range of artists to weave their way into the soundtrack.
Initially enlisted by the Colonel to join a bill led by country crooner Hank Snow (David Wenham) and his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Elvis soon becomes the headliner, with Hank stepping away due to concerns that his Christian family audience might blanch at Presley’s heathen hip-swinging. But Elvis’ doting mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), who calms his nerves like no one else, reassures her son, “The way you sing is God-given, so there can’t be nothin’ wrong with it.”
The rapid-fire cutting of editors Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond allows Luhrmann to whip through the meteoric rise in popularity, the landing of an RCA recording contract and the encroaching threat of political morality police at the same time. Parker keeps the Presley family onside by making Vernon his son’s business manager, albeit without much clout or responsibility. Meanwhile, one of Elvis’ bandmates slips him a pill while on the road “to put the pep back in your step,” setting in motion a dependency that would famously spiral in later years.
Segregation rallies with alarmist warnings about “Africanized culture” and “crimes of lust and perversion” target Presley, and television appearances start coming with the stipulation of “no wiggling.” But Elvis’ fans don’t go for the cleaned-up, powered-down version; they want the excitement and danger that has female fans hurling their underwear at the stage. When Elvis gives them what they want, the Colonel fears he’s losing control of his meal ticket so he maneuvers to have him shipped off to serve in the U.S. Army in 1958 for an image makeover. Elvis blames his absence for his mother’s increased drinking and subsequent death, and yet Parker’s hold over him is too strong to shake.
By this point it’s clear that while the Colonel aggressively pushes himself forward as Elvis’ protector, he exhibits little to no genuine affection for his star client, regarding him merely as a revenue source. With Gladys gone, that leaves an emotional void around the title character, which may be true to life, but robs the film of immediacy. Even his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) doesn’t do enough to counter that, which keeps Elvis remote just as Luhrmann should be drawing us in closer.
Too often, Luhrmann builds sequences like isolated vignettes rather than part of a consistently fluid narrative, for instance a romantic montage of Elvis and Priscilla in Germany during his military service, set to a pretty, wispy cover by Kasey Musgraves of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The sequence is sweet and dreamy, but it’s no substitute for getting to know Priscilla, a thinly drawn role beneath the hairdos and knockout fashions.
The action sprints forward through the rise and fall of Elvis’ movie career without lingering long (no Ann-Margret representation, sadly), but finds juicy detail in NBC’s 1968 comeback special. It’s conceived by Parker as a Christmas family special and a fresh merchandising opportunity for nerdy sweaters. But Elvis’ frustration with his career downturn causes him to take the advice of his old friend Jerry Schilling (Luke Bracey) and rework it on his own terms, angering Parker and the show’s sponsors at Singer.
Director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) reshapes the special, putting Elvis on a small stage surrounded by a TV audience. The raw rock ‘n’ roll set reaffirms Elvis’ influential place in American popular music just as he’s risking obsolescence. The recreated production numbers are a blast, with a gospel choir, “whorehouse” dancers and kung fu fighters. Elvis also shrugs off the Colonel’s insistence on closing with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” instead performing the original protest song, “If I Can Dream,” which resonates powerfully just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The attention given in Elvis to the ’68 special suggests how much brighter Presley’s star might have burned had he gotten out from under Parker’s control more often. But when he tries to extricate himself, the Colonel convinces him to commit to five years at $5 million a year in Vegas, blocking the international touring plan of management team members who actually do appear to consider his wellbeing. Parker’s puppet-mastery is revealed to be about not just his gambling debts but also about his undocumented status in the U.S., which would have been exposed had he left the country.
Of course, this is ultimately a tragedy, and a different filmmaker less consumed by the bigness and brassiness of his enterprise might have dug deeper into the pathos. But there are moving moments, especially in Butler’s performance as he transforms into the puffy, sweaty Elvis of his final years (thankfully, his prosthetics are less of an eyesore than Hanks’), his marriage to Priscilla dissolving and causing sorrow for both of them.
One might wish for a biopic with more access to the subject’s bruised, bleeding heart, but in terms of capturing the essence of what made Presley such a super nova, Elvis gets many things right.
The live performance sequences are electrifying, shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker with swooping moves to match Presley’s dynamic physicality and with intimacy to capture the molten feeling he poured into his songs. The bold use of color and lighting is eye-popping. The same goes for the production design by Luhrmann’s wife and career-long collaborator Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy; likewise, Martin’s utterly fabulous costumes.
Luhrmann is often criticized for molding material to serve his style rather than finessing his style to fit the material. Many will dismiss this film’s unrelenting flamboyance as bombastic Baz in ADHD overdrive, a work of shimmering surfaces that refuses to stop long enough to get under its subject’s skin. But as a tribute from one champion of outrageous showmanship to another, it dazzles.