After more than 20 years of writing about Baz Luhrmann—Red Mill! was the first review I wrote for this publication – it remains clear that almost everything that drives me crazy about his films are things he would consider features, not bugs. He doesn’t particularly care about narrative details, even though he works from established classics like Romeo and Juliet Where Gatsby the magnificent. His cinematographic canvases speak of great emotions and iconography.
Elvis Presley seems like an ideal subject for someone with those particular artistic inclinations, and Luhrmann dives into Elvis with the enthusiasm of someone who believes he has something new and compelling to say about one of the most famous and well-known humans of the 20th century. But after more than two and a half hours of ElvisI still have no idea what that something was supposed to be.
Did he want this primarily as a profile of Presley’s controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks)? Did he want to rehabilitate Presley’s history as an appropriator of black American music by making it his champion? Did he just want to bring his particular style to a conventional “greatest hits” musical biopic? And would it surprise me if he thought he could somehow do all of these things at once?
Lurhmann and his team of writers — including his longtime collaborator Craig Pearce — begin with Parker on his deathbed in Las Vegas circa 1997, beginning to tell audiences about his life and history with Elvis (Austin Butler). Flashbacks then ensue, as Parker learns of the growing popularity of the young singer who incorporates blues and gospel music into mainstream country, but – as Parker puts it, with dollar signs practically visible in his eyes – “he is white!”
The entire arc of Presley’s musical career then unfolds, from his rapid rise to fame, the growing controversy surrounding his sexualized stage presence (and perhaps encouraging miscegenation), his lucrative but artistically unsatisfying film career, and his third act as a living legend in Las Vegas while disintegrating into addiction.
The material focusing on Colonel Tom Parker certainly holds the greatest potential for discovery, and Elvis provides an interesting context of Parker as a savvy, carnival-trained trickster. It’s kind of hard to dig into this stuff, though, since Hanks’ performance is… let’s just say, not among his best.
Buried under prosthetic makeup and a fat suit, while adopting a vaguely Dutch accent that may be true to Parker’s actual speech but does the performance a disservice, Hanks’ Parker reads cartoonishly. The potential drama of seeing Parker sabotage Elvis’ dreams of a European tour by pushing him for selfish reasons to stay in Vegas is undermined when the character feels like a Mike Myers Austin Powers creation played a deadly straight line.
It doesn’t help that the idea of framing this story from Parker’s perspective keeps slipping away whenever it gets in the way of Luhrmann’s desires at some point, like showing us courtship scenes between Elvis and Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). That’s when Elvis starts to look exactly like the movie genre walk hard mocked – almost too literally at times, like the first scene where a live performance by Elvis immediately turns the girls in the audience into out-of-control nymphomaniacs.
The character’s attempts at insight — and Butler’s smooth, introverted performance as Elvis — are gobbled up by Luhrmann ticking off a checklist of tidbits from Elvis mythology, like “Elvis has left the building” or shooting at televisions. This is an epic feature film in which a lot happens, but not enough pivot.
Then there’s the matter of Elvis as a conscious liberator of the black race from black culture to the masses, and frankly, I don’t feel at all qualified to talk about the historical authenticity of things like his friendship with BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) or his deep respect for black church music. I just know how it feels, and it feels… a little gross. Luhrmann keeps packing material about Elvis’ reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahalia Jackson’s funeral, which takes on an “I think he’s protesting too much” vibe.
He wants us to feel things about Elvis – that he was a good man, that his artistic potential was hampered by Parker’s manipulations, etc. He wants us to feel. Luhrmann always wants us feel. And all I feel is, “Come on, man, put it all together.”