It seems only right to preface this review by acknowledging that Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, that frenetic, overdramatic, brilliantly contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, is a formative film for me. It was released at the height of my adolescence, and between it and Moulin Rouge! a few years later, I quickly became a fan of the filmmaker’s bold, unapologetic style, one that takes full advantage of the visual medium and often breaks ground with its willingness to try things other filmmakers haven’t even thought of yet. Over the years, that appreciation has been tested, as later offerings like 2008’s misfire Australia and even 2013’s middling (to me!) The Great Gatsby didn’t quite capture the magic of those earlier ambitious efforts. Luhrmann returns to the big screen this week with Elvis, a film so textbook him that it’s as exhausting as it is invigorating, possessing both cringe-worthy flaws and one of the most compelling performances of the year (and no, it’s not Tom Hanks).
Biopics (a portmanteau of “biography” and “picture,” so BYE-oh pick, not bye-OH pick) typically succeed best when the writer(s) wisely opt to focus on one specific moment in their real-life protagonist’s lives. Think One Night in Miami, Judy, or Selma. Where things get trickier is when the creative team decides they’re going to go all in and try to cover the entire life story of their subject; it’s so much content, particularly in a life lived as enormously as Elvis Presley’s, that trying to cover all that ground is just asking for narrative trouble. Elvis credits four different writers (five, if you count Luhrmann himself, who gets credited twice for, one assumes, WGA reasons) who’ve spliced together a jam-packed 160 minutes of personal battles, historical milestones and ovation-worthy performances in the life of the best-selling solo artist of all time. And rumor has it Luhrmann filmed enough to make the film nearly twice as long!
As it is, the film covers roughly the star’s entire life, from his childhood in poverty in Tupelo, Miss., to his tragic death in 1977 at just 42 years old. Luhrmann attempts to place at the center of this epic not Presley himself (magnetically portrayed by Austin Butler, but we’ll get to that), but the performer’s longtime manager and promoter, Colonel Tom Parker. Played by Tom Hanks in a prosthetic face to make him look older and fatter than he is and using a thick Dutch accent (that it doesn’t appear Parker himself actually had throughout his life), the film begins and ends with Parker’s voiceover, the showman insisting that all he ever wanted was for Presley to be successful. Though Parker remains a huge presence in both Presley’s life and the film itself, the show is quite literally stolen by Butler, whose performance as the legend himself is nothing short of awesome. Luhrmann doesn’t even give us real access to Butler until nearly an hour into the film (Presley as a child is portrayed by Chaydon Jay), but once he does, all bets are off; just try paying attention to anything else on screen when Butler is in the frame.
And oh, the frames. Like Wes Anderson leaning into all things Wes Anderson recently for The French Dispatch, Luhrmann channels his best Luhrmann for this one, with scenes edited so vigorously they may cause whiplash and enough plot to warrant half a dozen films rather than just one. On-screen graphics let us know when and where we are at each moment, and Butler ages so incrementally as Elvis that you might miss it until he’s huffing and puffing his way through a Las Vegas residency in the early ’70s. Certain scenes absolutely soar, like the sequence at Presley’s outdoor concert in 1956, where he’s being threatened with arrest for obscenity given all that thrusting and jiving on stage. With the Colonel and everyone around him insisting he just “stand there and sing,” Presley is forced to decide what kind of artist he wants to be, one that hews to societal expectations and behaves as he’s told, or one who remains true to himself and his style—laws and management be damned. Whether or not the actually was a defining moment for a young Presley on the brink of superstardom almost doesn’t matter; as presented, it’s a scene full of nail-biting tension and hair-raising sexuality.
That it’s prefaced by one of the film’s most misguided moments, where a wise B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) offers some sage advice about the guidance Elvis is getting from his team, is nearly enough to derail the proceedings. Luhrmann takes care in an already very-full script to acknowledge the influences (and often actual songs) Presley drew from the Black culture he grew up surrounded by, but with so much else to get through in this marathon of a movie, characters like King (BB and Martin Luther, Jr.), Mahalia Jackson (Cle Morgan) and Little Richard (Alton Mason) barely get more than a passing glance, nowhere near their due as the originators and true stewards of Presley’s style and sound. The same, unfortunately, can be said for Presley’s relationship with Priscilla Wagner Beaulieau (Olivia DeJonge); Luhrmann never bothers to note that Priscilla was only 14 years old when she met the 24-year-old Presley in Germany during his military career, and though she’s by his side for much of the rest of the film (the couple divorced in 1973), there’s very little attention paid to their actual relationship, what she offered him that he couldn’t find elsewhere or how they related to each other as they became parents and his star grew ever brighter and bigger.
In these ways, one can begin to understand why biopics with a more focused approach tend to have better results; they allow more space to dig deep into the characters and circumstances at play, rather than skating past some of the most important moments in the narrative. Luhrmann and his fellow writers, for example, try to express how affected Presley was by the tumultuous politics he came up in, a rock star performing pop songs amidst upheaval all around him, a civil rights movement, political assassinations and never-ending wars. While these moments help to humanize a man most only know as a legend today, they can only go so far when they clip by in the blink of an eye. Same goes for the drama and damage caused by Parker’s mismanagement, from thwarting international tour plans to tying the star to a ball and chain in the form of a residency in Las Vegas. We get glimpses of Presley becoming wise to the issues and Butler allows his cool façade to drop momentarily as the emotion of it all gets to him. But in each instance, one gets the sense that there’s much more story to tell, if only Luhrmann had the time.
In the end, Elvis is not a perfect film. But it’s certainly not a bad one either. Far from it. Luhrmann asks for our investment of time and energy, of which you’ll need plenty of both to keep up with everything he throws at us with this one. And it proves mostly worth it, as in a particularly show-stopping performance of “If I Can Dream” during Presley’s 1968 televised comeback concert. I don’t think I was the only one in the theater picking my jaw up off the floor after that one. Whatever shortcomings exist in Elvis, they’re perhaps more a product of a filmmaker’s overambitious style rather than a lack of potential substance. In his life, Elvis was a singular performer who commanded whatever stage, screen or room he inhabited. As the subject of Baz Luhrmann’s latest saga, though his life and work may prove too abundant for any one film, it’s nevertheless all a perfect match for this slightly imperfect, wildly entertaining film.
Elvis arrives in theaters Friday, June 24.
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