“I just gotta be making the most out of this thing while I can. It could all be over in a flash.”
Baz Lurhmann exists in that rarefied space where the vast majority of the public can count at least one of his films as their favorite. An entire generation has claimed his version of Romeo & Juliet as their own, while even the most staunch anti-musical moviegoers out there find themselves revisiting Moulin Rouge! year after year. If only a select few have embraced Australia, the remaining audiences have found themselves having Great Gatsby parties as they watch his ultra-lavish adaptation of the classic novel. In a way, it does make sense that Luhrmann, a director whose eye for visuals remains uniquely his own, should take on the enormous task of bringing to the screen the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists. At least, it should have made sense.
Luhrmann explores the life and career of the legendary singer Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), transporting his journey to the big screen in dazzling style. All aspects of the entertainer’s life are explored, including his controversial rise to prominence, his romance with Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge), and the infamous hold his manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), had on him.
I don’t yet believe I’ve ever met a film made under that distinct Luhrmann eye that didn’t totally wow me…until now. On paper, the idea of an Elvis Presley biopic directed by one of the greatest visual stylists the medium has ever produced sounded like the spectacle of the year. After all, film lovers the world over know just how intoxicating and mesmerizing the director’s films can be, no matter what story is being told. However, with titles like Moulin Rouge! and Australia, the visuals never overshadowed or shortchanged whatever story was being told. In Elvis, however, the style almost completely takes over the proceedings, bombarding the audience with one elaborate sequence after another. It’s because of this that far too many significant moments and milestones in Elvis’s life are glossed over through a quick succession of cuts as one of his songs plays overhead. Actual scenes do take place in Elvis, but by the time Luhrmann decides they’re worth stopping the flair and showmanship for, most of the runtime has already passed and leaving audiences feeling both elated and surprisingly underwhelmed.
That elation, however, is warranted thanks to what does work within Elvis. As much as the final product is more of a never-ending montage than an actual movie, Luhrmann can’t produce anything that isn’t spectacular on some level. This proves true the first time we bear witness to Elvis making his stage debut. Luhrmann captures the tension, energy, and birth of a superstar the first time he sang in front of a packed house, leading to the first of many great recreations of The King’s legendary stage presence. It’s that same kind of vibrancy that the director injects every time we see Elvis take the stage. Through great camera moves, superb edits, and what feels like a genuine affection for Elvis, every recreated performance feels so unbelievably electric. It should be pointed out that none of these moments would have a prayer of working without Butler, whose transformation into the man himself is so gradual, that at a certain point it becomes impossible not to look at him as Elvis. It’s one of the most impressive and committed performances of a real-life figure to come along in some time and the actor deserves every bit of praise for it.
Apart from Butler, it’s Hanks who gets the lion’s share of the remaining attention in Elvis. Buried under plenty of prosthetics and boasting a questionable (and accurate) accent, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet performs, unlike anything he’s ever done before. His Col. Parker is a svengali of the most manipulative kind, which Hanks goes to great lengths to illustrate, swaying back and forth between great panache and all-out camp. Even now, I’m still unable to determine if it was a good performance, but it’s certainly one I never tired of watching.
Elsewhere, when Butler isn’t swaying and crooning and Hanks isn’t chewing and plotting, DeJonge and Helen Thomson (as Gladys Presley) manage some poetic moments of their own, all of which help us to better understand Elvis the person.
Speaking as someone who is currently writing one, it’s not lost on me (or anyone, really), that the current movie landscape is chock full of biopics that focus on a whole slew of famous people, from First Ladies to TV stars and even televangelists. Some make the fatal mistake of trying to cover too much ground by following their subject from the cradle to the grave, inevitably missing the chance to capture their true essence in the process. Others opt for a specific period in a person’s life, which does offer up the chance for audiences to know them a little better even if it misses out on highlighting the milestones in their lives which made them who they were.
With Elvis, Luhrmann, in a way, aims for both, but ultimately comes up short thanks to the sensibilities he’s forever bound to. But whenever Elvis takes the stage, the same kind of magic that The King himself possessed comes gloriously back to life thanks to a filmmaker with an undeniable passion for the man he’s brought to us once again.