There’s undeniably something attractive about artists who can’t be anyone but themselves — especially filmmakers who add 100 percent of their personality to every project, whether it needs that much or not. Baz Luhrmann is one of those artists, and it should have made him the perfect director for Elvis, the life story of Elvis Presley, a special artist in his own right. Unfortunately, what the audience gets from Luhrmann is just exaggerated: His fast-paced super-editing style dominates the subject, and the result is an impressionistic, jumbled climax reel of Presley’s many performances, despite lively recreations by actor Austin Butler as The King.
Luhrmann’s hiring Tom Hanks to play Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ calculating manager, is no doubt meant to demonstrate both the control Presley lacked in his career, and the unstoppable talent and charisma that transcended that control. But the director’s oppressive style, always looking for a dazzling, lightning-fast depiction of events that have already happened Interestingly enough on its own, sadly, that trauma of the late star is relived twofold—first by on-screen Parker and then by the filmmaker as his future biographer.
Hanks, as Parker, narrates the film, which is at least as much his as Presley’s. As a music promoter leading singer Hank Snow from one revue to the next, he meets Elvis shortly after the release of “That’s All Right” on Sun Records and immediately sees its commercial potential – especially when the young singer causes bursts of spontaneous excitement from a otherwise genteel crowd. For his part, Presley simply taps into the dual influences of rhythm & blues and gospel that he experienced growing up in the poorest and blackest neighborhoods of Memphis. But Parker, seeing dollar signs in the young man’s hips, soon seduces the singer away from his Sun contract with the certainty of a house that would become Graceland, and the promise of a family business run by his well-meaning but untidy father Vernon. (Richard Roxburgh).
Presley’s half-Pentecostal/half-pornographic upheavals in a handful of television appearances soon land him in hot water with a white moral majority who fear he’s getting – musically and otherwise – close to the black artists who inspired him. Parker suggests enlisting in the military (even though Elvis was drafted IRL) will soothe his critics as well as perhaps some of the rebellious energy underlying his spellbinding charisma. While serving in Germany, Presley meets a soldier’s daughter, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who later becomes his wife; upon his return to the United States, he transitions into film acting, a venture that washes out much of his fan base and, with each throwaway project, diminishes his goal of becoming a serious actor “like James Dean.”
In 1968, Presley returns to music with a television special, rekindles his career and plans a world tour. But when Parker’s gambling debts — and his mysterious past — threaten to catch up with him, the manager manipulates his star into settling for a years-long residency in Las Vegas, where drug abuse and the excesses of fame inevitably catch up with Elvis, threatening to undermine his legacy. .
Luhrmann shrewdly notes that Presley’s career was a major factor in the cultural and political changes in America between the 1950s and the late 1960s, but he pays selective attention at best to what is “crucial” to even a casual Elvis historian. moments, from his early recordings to his reactions to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It is not a new insight to see that the filmmaker is terminally afraid of silence or silence, but Luhrmann begins to cannibalize his subject’s life early on with montage after montage – less in the service of Presley’s perspective than Parker’s. And while it’s clear from the start that the manager is a slimeball, the film never adds new or meaningful dimensions to that portrait.
Despite Parker’s repeated attempts (on screen and one assumes in real life) to tame his client, one thing that Luhrmann effectively captures is how Presley simultaneously kick-started the country’s sexual awakening and began to embody it through the black. music – the ‘racing records’ – from which the young man borrowed so generously and lovingly. It is hoped that in the 1950s there were at least a few young gay men who were as thirsty as they were in the movie watching Presley’s first big TV appearance. But what’s fascinating (and fun) to watch is the way Presley’s music and his moves, in a largely unknown amount, especially among the white audience, evoked feelings few fans had previously had an outlet for and were consequently helpless. to resist them, in part because they couldn’t fully understand them.
As Elvis, Butler is quite phenomenal; the singer from his teens to his last days playing, singing, dancing, (briefly) fattening and everything in between, there are no cracks in his performance (I don’t know how many of the vocal performances were his, and don’t particularly care) . If he radiates a little more danger as an actor – at least by the standards of contemporary aesthetics –than the real Elvis, it feels like the right choice for a filmmaker incapable of subtlety. But in terms of character depth and identity, Butler navigates a cobweb-thin line between Luhrmann’s noisy machines.
More baffling — even catastrophic — comes Hanks as Tom Parker, whose simmering Dutch roots were recognizable in the distance in real life, but here are enhanced by an accent better suited to one of Austin Powers’ enemies. Despite the downright poor choice to tell the story of one of the most iconic performers’ most iconic performers from the point of view of his manager villain, Hanks maintains a consistent layer of threat and dodgy, right down to his cryptic descriptions of Presley as the singer’s cultural stature grows throughout the film. Hanks is supposed to be credited with finally playing an outright villain for the first time in his career, but he plays Parker as such an enemy that it seems clear that, to his detriment, he was spurred on by Luhrmann’s campy excesses.
Luhrmann, who co-wrote, produced and directed the film, repeats some of his earlier tricks of The Great Gatsby and red mill to give Presley contemporary relevance by weaving a musical tapestry of the singer’s hits and music by contemporary artists. But like everything else in the film, they’re pulverized with no meaningful effect, while he languishes too much by half-imitating costumes, sets, and locations from periods in his subject’s life. Somehow Elvis’ Vegas show looks spot-on, but the director can’t convincingly stage scenes that take place on a runway or on a hilltop in Hollywood.
You can imagine that for Luhrmann such criticisms roll like water from the Brylcreem into young Elvis’ impeccably decorated pompadour – or perhaps they are irrelevant to someone so entrenched in cartoonish theatricality. But if you feel like you know less about a subject after a movie than before, that’s a bad thing. If one thing is clear from the story told here, it is that the artist has rarely (if ever) felt fully capable of expressing himself and exploring his creative ambitions on his own terms. Luhrmann was clearly able to do that – at least for himself – by trying to tell Presley’s story. But as a coda for a career that probably no one can capture in a movie, let alone this particular filmmaker, Elvis sadly repeats the ongoing line of his legacy: it’s another example of artists exploiting Presley to pursue their own greatness rather than honor his.