Elvis Movie Review: Seductive, Sweaty Baz Luhrmann Biopic Makes the King Cool Again
Dir: Baz Luhrmann. Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Shonka Dukureh. 12A, 160 mins.
If we were to pull back the curtain on Elvis Presley, what would we even want to see? A soul stripped of its performance? Something cold and real behind the kitsch? I am not convinced. American pop icons aren’t just shiny distractions. It is a culture that refers to itself, constantly questioning its own ideals and desires. I don’t think who Elvis was is necessarily more important than what Elvis represents. And, while you won’t find much truth in Baz Luhrmann’s dramatization of his cradle-to-grave life, the Aussie filmmaker delivered something far more compelling: an American fairy tale.
“I’m the man who gave the world Elvis Presley,” says Colonel Tom Parker of Tom Hanks, his manager, as the curtain rises (literally) on Luhrmann’s expansive, rhinestone-encrusted epic. “And yet, there are some who would make me look like the villain of this story,” he adds.
Parker, who saw early promise in Elvis’ politically radical mix of country and R’n’B, has slyly positioned himself as the sole overseer of the star’s creative enterprise – the man who brought him to life. earned a recording contract with RCA Records, which secured her merchandising deals. and television appearances, and which guided him through a rather brief but abundant acting career. But Parker took much more in return. In 1980, a judge ruled that he had defrauded the Presley estate out of millions. Some even blame him for pushing an overworked Elvis to the brink and ultimately contributing to his death.
For Luhrmann, the fairy tale parallels couldn’t be more obvious. Parker is the evil stepmother, Elvis (played here by former child star Austin Butler) is the princess locked in her tower – if that tower is, in fact, the vast, golden stage of her Las Vegas residence. When Parker, a former carnival worker, first seduces Elvis to become his client, it’s in a veritable hall of mirrors. It might sound a bit absurd, but Luhrmann’s roots in the Australian opera scene gave him a winning (if, for some, divisive) ability to deliver baroque styles with a sincere, romantic sensibility.
I have always believed strongly in the purpose and necessity of Luhrmann’s extravagant visions – that it is not enough simply to capture the grotesque consumption of Gatsby the magnificent‘s Jazz Age, but to prove that we, the audience, would be as weak to its charms as Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Nick Carraway. The same is true here, in the way his subject is both seduced and betrayed by his own notoriety. And, anyway, Luhrmann has always shot his movies much like Elvis does — sweaty and kinetic, as the camera sweeps through the halls of Graceland and through the decades of his life with the fury of a thousand karate kicks.
Elvis will and should invite serious discussion of the musician’s exceptional legacy, and the film’s weakest points mostly testify to the instability of the debate around it. There’s certainly a lot to be said for the movie’s edginess surrounding his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who was 14 when they first met. Can a film speak for a woman still alive and capable of sharing her own story? And where do we settle the great debate over Elvis’ larger role in music history? Was his success really just another chapter in White America’s long history of cultural appropriation, or did this early rebel appeal actually prove to be a surprisingly powerful tool in the fight against segregation?
Luhrmann’s film offers arguably the most plausible romantic ideal of Elvis, even if it turns him into some kind of naive trapped under Parker’s spell. He is always, in Parker’s narration, called “the boy” and never “the man”. He’s the sweet-souled, blue-eyed mama’s boy who just wants to buy his family a Cadillac and play the music of his childhood, which was spent in the majority black communities of Mississippi. Even at the peak of Elvis’ fame, the film is careful to constantly take us back to the black artists who inspired him, either in the musician’s own words (and he was always respectful of his background, all the way) either by Matt Villa and the frenetic editing work of Jonathan Redmond. When singer-songwriter Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) launches into her rendition of “Hound Dog,” a voice on the radio commands us to listen — it’s the voice of black America speaking.
By framing Elvis’s story through Parker’s, Luhrmann’s film is deftly able to step back from the intimate details of the musician’s life. Instead, he sees it as a nuclear warhead of sultry and cool, someone standing at the crossroads of a fierce culture war. Parker thinks he can turn him into a pure, American boy for the white middle classes, forcing him to accept the draft, cut his hair, and go to war. Elvis resists, and his gyratory pelvis (captured in many glorious crotch zooms) helps fuel the burgeoning sexual independence of young women across the country. “She has feelings that she wasn’t sure she should enjoy,” Parker notes, as the camera tracks a wide-eyed, lip-biting fan. Costume designer Catherine Martin — Luhrmann’s wife, also credited as co-production designer and producer — dresses Elvis in an array of soft, dreamy pinks to sublime effect.
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Say that Elvis isn’t so much about the real Elvis might seem like it takes the pressure off Butler’s performance. But that would be an utterly unfair judgment of what’s being achieved here – an impersonation of one of the most imitated people on the planet, who is at times eerie without ever coming across as a parody. Sure, Butler has the looks, voice, stance and movement nailed, but what’s truly impressive is that indescribable, indistillable essence of Elvis-ness – magnetic and sweet and fierce, all at the same time. .
It’s almost strange to watch such an all-consuming performance that Hanks – the Tom Hanks – feels like a prop. He’s practically buried under layers of prosthetics and a pantomime Dutch accent, seemingly cast only so that the American dad’s warm smile might make a few people wonder if he really is the bad guy in all of this. Butler makes a compelling case for Elvis’ power, at a time when the musician has arguably lost some of his cultural cachet. Luhrmann too. The same goes for the soundtrack, which is full of contemporary artists (Doja Cat’s “Vegas” has the sound of summer written all over it). And while not everyone will be convinced by their efforts, I know I’m ready for Elvis to be cool again.
‘Elvis’ hits theaters June 24