Baz Luhrmann’s epic solidifies Elvis as the King but does little to imagine him as a person.
By George Barreto
It’s hard to depict any person’s life in a movie. It’s even harder when the person lived many lives in one. But who else than Baz Luhrmann to tackle the task? Luhrmann is widely known for his maximalist approach to storytelling such as 1996’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby.” In a sense, it feels like Luhrmann should be the only one able to bring Elvis Presley to life on the big screen.
The biography follows the legend himself, played by Austin Butler, from his humble beginnings to his eventual downfall. From the very get-go, it is impossible to resist Butler’s extremely enigmatic performance that so suitably captures Presley’s onstage persona. It is in the first half of the movie, which surrounds Elvis’ 1953 introductory performance, that Butler provides a genuine innocence to the character. He is constantly in awe of the attention he gets, and it is the alienation from this newfound fame that draws him closer to Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
Hanks, under layers upon layers of prosthetics, narrates the entirety of the film as Presley’s greedy manager. With a heavy Dutch accent and too much paprika on the sandwich, Hanks couldn’t be further from his usual image of “America’s Dad.” There is an innate malevolence that both Hanks and the film touch on with Col. Parker, but the decision to have him narrate the story to underline his culpability in Presley’s demise feels flawed. The film makes a point of shedding light on all the gilded cages Parker used to confine Elvis, so it was rather confusing for the narrative to be reliant on Parker’s perspective. It may be true that Parker was ultimately a showman that squeezed everything out of Elvis, but dwelling so much on him only works if the movie is called “Col. Tom Parker.” Yet, Hanks shows immense delight in playing Col. Parker as Elvis’ foil, and it’s in these moments that the movie feels oddly human.
There is a scene that takes place after Elvis is discovered by the Parker in which the colonel promises a life of glamour, fame and, most importantly, a guiding hand. Elvis shows intrigue at the idea but is fearful of losing himself along the way. The kinetic editing reminiscent of the late-’90s MTV aesthetic accentuates the drama of such a momentous decision, etching into stone the inevitable with such irresistible extravagance. This is when the movie’s visual language really starts to cook. Luhrmann’s style is akin to that of a trailer, often leaving no breathing room for any emotions or ideas to find their footing. And while there are many defenders, it has often been too grating for my own taste (apart from in “Romeo + Juliet”). The style becomes white noise at some points. It’d be absurd to call any of his movies boring, however. His movies are vibrant and lively, which lends well to his subjects that tend to live lives of fabricated glamour.
It is that same energy that made this so disappointing. The film often feels like it’s selling you on the idea of the movie for almost its entire runtime without bothering to get comfortable enough to give you the movie. A lot of Elvis’ progression as a person happens in montage, and while that can be an interesting storytelling tool, it happens too often to ever truly feel satisfying. The handful of fleshed-out scenes that integrate Presley’s personality do highlight Butler’s attention to detail with the character. When Presley visits B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) on the eve of his infamous Russwood Park performance that led to his arrest due to the governor’s opposition to his black-inspired sound, the two share an insightful conversation about whether Elvis could put on a show without being constrained by the politics of the time. King’s response to the matter is that he is a “white boy” and that too many people are making money off him. I’m not exactly sure how historically accurate this conversation is, but it’s one of the few genuine instances of Luhrmann not only rendering the persona but highlighting the man behind it.
Ultimately, not much is done about Elvis the person. There are few scenes in which the persona is ever in “off mode.” After three hours, I essentially knew no more about Elvis than I did before. There are not many scenes that unearth his personal life, though Luhrmann claims there’s a four-hour cut depicting the complexities of the man. If Luhrmann’s intention was to provide fodder for the myth, then he succeeded. If it was to portray Elvis the man, then a lot was left to be desired.
“Elvis” is now in theaters.