‘Elvis’ review: Baz Luhrmann gets caught in a biopic trap

There were many Elvis Presleys. The young, beautiful Elvis who transformed pop music with a shiver of voice and a wiggle of his hips. Movie star Elvis, who set off one musical after another and almost lost his audience forever. The sequined jumpsuit Elvis kicks and karate kicks its way across the stage at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. And finally the bloated, exhausted Elvis, who apparently worked (and stunned) himself to death.

The best you can say about Baz Luhrmann‘s Elvis is it contains every single one of these Elvises, and all of them are played with impressive fidelity and energy by Austin Butler. Butler has been a working Hollywood actor for more than 15 years and has established himself solidly in Elvis as a magnetic screen presence of the highest order. At his prime, Elvis was one of the greatest live artists in history, and Butler proves he’s up to the task of embodying King of Rock & Roll. Whether the film is worthy of him – or Elvis himself – is another matter. For all of Luhrmann’s sparkling visual panache, Elvis plays as a very conventional and very crowded biopic about an unappreciated genius who was exploited by people around him.

The key figure who exploits in this case is Elvis’ longtime manager Col. Tom Parker, played in the movie by Tom Hanks. Although Hanks bears very little physical resemblance to the real Parker (and he looks ridiculous under a huge pile of dentures), his interest in the material makes sense. As an actor and filmmaker, Hanks has made a number of films about this period in American history and the music industry. Elvis is right in his wheelhouse.

Hanks’ Parker tells Elvis from his deathbed after a crash in 1997. While morphine drips ominously into his wrinkled arm, Parker flashes back to the earliest days of his relationship with his most famous client. As the story progresses, Parker repeatedly declares his innocence in any role in the big star’s premature death at the age of 42.

There are many ways Hanks could have approached this role. The route he chose was to play Col. Park like a James Bond villain, complete with quirky yet irreconcilable foreign accents, corpulent face, screaming clothes and cane, and even a headquarters high up on the Las Vegas Strip. The only thing missing is a cat to iron while he devilishly plans to prevent Elvis from hiring a better manager or finally taking on the international tour he spends years trying to get started on. (Parker, real name Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, was an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands. Elvis strongly suggests that he prevented Presley from ever venturing overseas due to his lack of passport and his fear that if he ever left the country, he would be deported.)

Warner Bros.

It’s a rare bad performance from Hanks, but the bigger problem is that the emphasis on Parker and his perspective adds nothing to the film’s portrait of Elvis Presley. Despite all his screen time and narration, Parker remains a simplistic figure: greed, manipulation and little else. If Parker had interests other than wringing every single cent possible from Elvis Presley, or any kind of privacy or family, you would not see them exhibited here; they never come up a single time. You will learn more about this man skimming his Wikipedia page on his way out of the cinema than you do in this 159-minute movie.

Elvis himself does better, if only because Butler is so thoroughly persuasive at every step of his journey. He’s eerily good at channeling Presley’s electric charisma on stage, and Elvis is never better than when Luhrmann leans back and lets Butler perform. His re-enactments of the ’68 Comeback Special and Elvis’ Las Vegas debut are intriguing. If Butler’s acting career ever runs out, he can definitely have a really good life as Vegas’ best Elvis impersonator.

But Lurhmann only seems to understand – or at least is only interested in – the Elvis icon, not the Elvis person. There are surprisingly few scenes where Elvis and Parker just talk together, and even fewer that give us a window into Elvis’ mental state when he is not performing, thinking about performing, or worrying about whether he will be able to to perform in the future. (A short scene where Elvis brushes his teeth and has a conversation with his wife Priscilla feels like a deviation the film could have used much more of.)

Elvis focuses so intensely on certain small bits of Elvis’ life that long periods end up being flooded in absurdly hasty montages. The pace is daunting; in about four minutes, Elvis receives a draft message, goes abroad to join the army, and his mother dies of a broken heart, allegedly because she was so afraid of his military service. But the film contains just a single scene of Elvis in uniform, courting 14-year-old Priscilla (played by 24-year-old Olivia DeJonge) by telling her about her lifelong dream of becoming a movie star.

Warner Bros.

A scene later, Elvis sits on top of the dilapidated Hollywood sign, contemplating the metaphorical ruins of his dwindling career. “I used to dream of being a great actor like Jimmy Dean!” Elvis groans. He went from dreaming of movie star status to becoming the highest paid actor in the film industry to having been on about 45 seconds of screen time.

The whole movie is like that. Luhrmann, who loves to indulge in images of lavish opulence, clearly adores Elvis’ sense of music and fashion, and he credits him and his irresistible dance moves with awakening America’s latent sexuality in the mid-20th century. Another long part of the film tells of Presley’s reaction to the threat of arrest if he can not refrain from pushing his pelvis on stage. (Spoiler alert: Elvis can’t help but bump his pelvis on stage.) Luhrmann definitely conveys Presley’s impact and significance, even as he celebrates his style, scams, and songs.

But instead of mapping Elvis ‘gradual shift from proto-rocker to Vegas crooner, it digs into a handful of moments – usually concerts that let Butler flex his talents – and skips any of the scenes that can explore Elvis’ musical development or his decline into drugs. All Elvis appear, but how they connect to each other is mostly left to the imagination of the audience.

Additional thoughts:

-I do not require total historical accuracy of a film, but there are many moments in it Elvis which are blatantly distractingly false. For example: I Elvis, Robert F. Kennedy is shot in the middle of filming the famous Comeback Special from 1968, and temporarily shuts down production, while Elvis abandons the show’s planned, family-friendly ending in favor of a new protest song, which Elvis himself writes. The song “If I Can Dream” was written for the thesis, but not by Elvis. Plus, Kennedy died weeks before, not the night before Presley shot the final.

-In true Baz Luhrmann manner, even his writing on Elvis is flashy: He is credited once for the film’s story (with Jeremy Doner) and twice to the film’s script (with Sam Bromwell and with Craig Pearce).


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