But what else would you expect from Baz Luhrmann?
The opening ten to fifteen minutes of Elvis are exhausting. In a delightful way.
It opens depicting Tom Hanks under stifling fat make-up as the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, apparently living his final restless days in Las Vegas. Serving as a narrator, he begins to extol the audience on his complicated relationship of with his most famous client, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler, a star), with cutting constantly across the perhaps the most iconic vision of Elvis: Vegas sideshow, in sequined jumpsuits and capes. This crashes into Parker’s initial meetings with Elvis, which itself crashes into Elvis’ childhood, which then informs his earliest recordings, which earns him a spot at a local radio concert where he causes seemingly ecstatic reactions from predominantly the female audience.
This all happens at whip-fast speed, intercutting between different time periods, with experimental cross-fades and no real concern about moving in a specific linear line. Once Parker and Elvis become business partners, most of this settles down into telling the story of Elvis in linear fashion, but this initial unbridled opening ambush is the film at its most ecstatic and unhinged. I use that term endearingly; when the film settles down into more familiar music biopic fare, it feels comfortable and safe, borderline boring. When it is racing faster than a gunned out pink Cadillac, it revs with exhilarating heat.
But even those more traditional portions still sing because Baz Luhrmann has picked perhaps the most fascinating subject for a musical biography available. Yes, Presley’s life has been explored again and again, and Luhrmann’s take doesn’t exactly seek to serve his life’s story with any new insight that hasn’t been dissected before. In particular, Luhrmann decides to take Elvis’ side at just about any portion, presenting him as a conduit between Black and White America throughout the 50s and 60s, and that any hardship he faced was the interference of that dastardly Parker.
This is because Luhrmann seems less interested in showing Elvis the man as Elvis the ideal: the sex symbol, the rebellious icon, a symbol that embodies all the excess but also hardship of the 20th Century. Elvis as a person, the historical Elvis, is too complicated and flawed for the melodramatic tragedy tableau that is at the heart of this film: the story of a wild creative who brought something beautiful and exhilarating into the world, only for it to be too untamed for the world to handle.
This is all channeled through Austin Butler, who grabs ahold of a role that could easily slide into parody or cheap intimation and finds the bleeding heart beneath the surface. At each stage of Evils’ development, as his growing opulence and wealth pulls him into new strange circumstances, Butler has his hand on the lever of what precisely the role asks of him. He always plays to a continuity between them, from the nervous kid up through the glittering Vegas artifact. Luhrmann’s tragedy works because of Butler’s commitment.
By contrast, Hank seems content to play a cartoonish villain, which is also exactly what is asked of him. Luhrmann, who worked with a bevy of co-writers to help give the film its shape, imagines Parker as a sort of demon, a corrupting force that reins in Elvis’ beautiful wildness. Throughout the film, Hanks’ snarls and whimpers are easily readable as manipulative as they are. It all makes Elvis seem foolish, but of course we know how this ends. The film starts at the ending, and it hangs over the whole thing. The fact is that from the first moment we see Elvis shake his hips, we know he is doomed. That is the way tragedy works, you go in knowing the ending, and then witness how the unraveling unfolds.
In a way, this form of hyper-kinetic tragedy has become Luhrmann’s calling card. From Romeo + Juliet to The Great Gatsby, his most consistent obsession has been with people that society, and often specifically money, undo. In Elvis he has the perfect catalyst for this, someone who clearly was a creative who made something that changed the world, but was torn down by demons of consumerism and greed. It is perhaps reckless to use a historical figure to make that point. But that’s something Luhrmann and Elvis have in common; they’re at their best when they’re a little reckless.