In telling the story of Elvis Presleythe over-the-top, flashy “King of Rock and Roll” who became a cultural icon and an integral part of music history, it makes perfect sense on paper to put Baz Luhrmann in control of such a story. In films like Moulin Rouge!, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Julietand most recently, 2013’s The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann likes to hit the gas hard and ignore the brakes, with an ostentatious and showy style that often allows himself to be the star of the show. Sometimes this style works — as when he’s exploring the decadent experience of a French nightclub or the party atmosphere of a millionaire trying to capture the attention of a long-lost love — but in exploring the life of a real person, a person with real issues. , problems and layers, Luhrmann does not know how to present the complexities of real life. With Luhrmann’s films, he almost always wants to create an extravagant fairy tale, and while that approach tonally mostly makes sense with the life of Presley, Luhrmann’s musical biopic Elvis becomes more style than substance.
Elvis follows the highs and lows of the legendary singer through the eyes of his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Parker starts Elvis by proclaiming that he did not kill Elvis, he made him. Parker states early on that it does not matter if you do ten stupid things, as long as you do one smart one, and Luhrmann seems to take this approach to this story as well. From the opening moments, Elvis (with a screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearceand Jeremy Doner) feels like a hyper-gaudy recitation of a Wikipedia history of Presley, hitting the major notes that one should explore in this story, embellishing the more theatrical aspects of this tale, and mostly avoiding the complicated aspects of Elvis’ life. There are moments where Elvis comes close to Walk Hard-esque levels of biopic parody, as a character offers Presley drugs, or as women come and go in his life, but Luhrmann is flying through this story too fast to draw too much attention to these moments.
Luhrmann turns the story of Elvis into his own fairy tale, with the villainous Parker manipulating Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). With Hanks under absurd prosthetics and even more absurd accent, Elvis at times seems like Luhrmann trying to almost recreate the Satine-Zidler dynamic from Moulin Rouge! with Parker and Presley. Parker is a showman who will do what it takes to get his star on stage, always using his meal ticket for his own desires, regardless of how it hurts the talent. Luhrmann centralizes the story of Elvis around this dynamic, which quickly becomes repetitive, as Parker tries to do what will make him the most money, while Presley goes with his heart and the music that he loves, and thrives because of that — not Parker’s ideas.
Hanks’ Parker is more Saturday Night Live character than an actual performance — another flaw in Luhrmann’s bombastic approach to this material. Parker is nothing more than a leech, and to dive any deeper into Parker’s past or his carnival antics would not work with Luhrmann’s take. However, the saving grace of Elvis is Butler’s mesmerizing performance. Butler is able to show how impactful Elvis was throughout his career through the act of performing onstage. Elvis explores how Presley was often only himself when he had an audience, and like Elvis, Butler comes to life when he put under the spotlight. Butler manages to ensure his take on Elvis does not fall into satire — a difficult task to pull off — and gets to the heart of what was on weighing on Elvis’ heart and mind at the time. From the nervous kid afraid to get on a small stage, to the Elvis later in his life still giving his all before his death at a young age, Butler nails every aspect of Presley’s life through this role.
But throughout Elvis, Presley is called more of a sideshow attraction than an artist, and Luhrmann’s approach certainly feels like he agrees with this assessment. For most of Elvis, the music itself is almost irrelevant, with the act of performance taking center stage instead. Luhrmann’s direction seems like it belongs in a carnival funhouse — always in motion, flying and drawing attention to itself, an act that almost plays like misdirection as opposed to a way to enhance this story: Keep your eyes on the fancy tricks, as we distract from how one-dimensional Elvis too often is. Luhrmann is constantly balancing between showing off through his direction, or mishandling cloying musical biopic clichés. For example, as Presley’s life starts to crumble around him, Luhrmann knows he can not rely on his usual bag of tricks, and instead, holds on the actors, while adding a saccharine string soundtrack to these scenes, trying to motivate the audience to emotion. Luhrmann is not known for his tact or nuance — and that often fits perfectly with his other stories that trade in the bombastic — but when Elvis needs to calm down and focus on true human emotions, Luhrmann does not know how to contain himself.
Luhrmann’s style is also anachronistic to a fault here. Whereas again, something like the party ambiance of Moulin Rouge! or The Great Gatsby allows for various eras of music to combine and intertwine in fun ways, in Elvis, it’s almost laughable. Hip-hop blares on the streets of Beale Street in Memphis, while one of Presley’s moments of uncertainty is soundtracked by a mashup of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and Backstreet Boys. At a certain point, Luhrmann’s attempts to inject modern pop references into the past is laughable, as when Presley says “I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson ”after the death of Mahalia Jackson. In a Luhrmann-created world, all of these elements could’ve been great fun, but in a story that is supposed to be based in some reality, it comes off as thoughtless and silly.
But for all its flaws and questionable choices, Luhrmann’s films are a spectacle that needs to be seen to be believed. Luhrmann’s very distinct style can feel like a breath of fresh air at times, especially when wrapped around the standard biopic tropes. Yet after the adrenaline rush of the beginning, it’s hard to maintain that energy throughout the 160 minutes of Elvis. In the final moments of Elvis, Luhrmann shifts from Butler’s portrayal of Elvis into real footage of the King of Rock & Roll, and it feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s like binging Skittles for two and a half hours, then getting a vegetable. And while Luhrmann can do his best to recreate the glitzy, nonstop nature of Presley’s life, in those final moments, it’s easy to see that Elvis lacked the weight that this real footage captures. It’s that little bit of substance that reminds how hollow the previous hours of style have been.
Elvis opens in theaters on June 24.