What do you think of Baz Luhrmann Elvis will largely depend on how you feel about Baz Luhrmann’s brash, scintillating maximalism. Nothing but the hyper-caffeinated establishment section — even before Austin Butler’s locomotive hips started doing their jerky thing when Elvis Presley took the stage to perform “Heartbreak Hotel” in a rockabilly-chic pink suit — leaves you dizzy with its frenetic explosion of searing colors, split-screen, retro graphics and more per-scene edits than a human eye can count. Add to that the layered and stunning sound design and it’s baz times a bazillion.
While the writing too rarely lives up to the stunning visual impact, the director’s affinity for his showman subject is both contagious and exhausting. Luhrmann’s taste for operatic spectacle is evident throughout, resulting in a film that exults in moments of great melodrama as much as in theatrical artifice and vigorously entertaining performances.
A piece, a piece of burning show.
As for the big question of whether Butler could successfully cement himself as one of the most indelible icons in American pop culture history, the answer is an unqualified yes. His stage moves are sexy and hypnotic, his soulful, lost mama’s son quality is worthy of a swoon, and he captures the tragic paradox of a phenomenal success story that clings tenaciously to the American dream even as it continues to crumble in his hands.
But this biopic’s heart is tainted, thanks to a storyline whose choppy patchwork feel perhaps directly correlates to its convoluted billing — by Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromell and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner; story by Baz Luhrmann and Jeremy Doner. This bite suggests an amalgamation of different versions, though the big hurdle is the off-putting character driving the narrative, who punches a hole in its center.
That would be “Colonel” Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks in arguably the least appealing performance of his career – a creepy, sharp-eyed glower under a mountain of latex, with a grating, unidentifiable accent that doesn’t get any less perplexing. even after the character’s murky Dutch origins were revealed. It’s a big risk to tell your story through the lens of a morally repugnant egoist, a financial abuser who used his manipulative carnival barker skills to control and exploit his vulnerable star attraction, driving him to the exhaustion and draining him of an inordinate proportion of his earnings.
Whenever the action falls to Parker from Hanks towards the end of his life – refuting his designated role as the villain of the story of a Las Vegas casino where he racked up gambling debts that necessitated keeping Elvis under a lucrative residency contract in an international hotel. – the film wobbles. As described here and elsewhere, Parker was a selfish trickster who monopolized the star’s artistic and personal freedom and can now monopolize his life story. Elvis the movie works better when Elvis the Man is a figment of playmaker Luhrmann’s feverish imagination than when Parker keeps reminding us, “I made Elvis Presley.”
The subject’s musical background is depicted in a pleasingly ornate Southern Gothic style as young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) grows up in Tupelo, Mississippi, moving to a poor black neighborhood after his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), is briefly imprisoned. for having died an NSF cheque.
Peering through cracks in the walls of juke joints or under the tent shutters of holy-roller revival meetings, Elvis absorbs influences that would allow him to fuse bluegrass with R&B, gospel and country, and create an unprecedented sound from a white singer. In a fun and wild fanfare, the roots of the “lewd gyrations” that would inflame screaming fans and conservative watchdogs in their respective ways can be traced back to the boy being physically possessed by the spirit during a church service.
As they did in Gatsby the magnificent and elsewhere, Luhrmann and longtime music supervisor Anton Monsted freely mix period and contemporary tunes once teenage Elvis, whose family has now moved to Memphis, begins hanging out on Beale Street, where he bonds friendship with the young BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and chills to the gospel sounds of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (English musician Yola). Given that Elvis’ vocal style draws on multiple inspirations, it makes sense that swaggering hip-hop and Elvis covers from an array of artists would find their way into the soundtrack.
Initially enlisted by the Colonel to join a bill led by country crooner Hank Snow (David Wenham) and his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Elvis quickly becomes the headliner, with Hank walking away due concerns that his Christian home audience might whitewash at Presley’s pagan hip-swaying. But Elvis’ doting mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson), who calms his nerves like no one else, reassures her son: “The way you sing is God given, so there’s nothing wrong with that. .”
The quick cut from publishers Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond sees Luhrmann weather the meteoric rise in popularity, securing an RCA recording contract, and the pervasive threat of the political morality police all at the same time. Parker keeps the Presley family on his side by making Vernon his son’s business manager, but without much influence or responsibility. Meanwhile, one of Elvis’ bandmates slips him a pill on the road “to pep up your step”, triggering an addiction that would become famous in later years.
Segregation rallies with alarmist warnings about “Africanized culture” and “crimes of lust and perversion” target Presley, and TV appearances start coming with the stipulation of “no fuss”. But Elvis fans aren’t going for the cleaned up and extinguished version; they want the excitement and danger that drives female fans to throw their underwear on stage. When Elvis gives them what they want, the Colonel fears losing control of his meal ticket, so he maneuvers to have him sent to serve in the U.S. Army in 1958 for a makeover. Elvis blames his absence for his mother’s increased drinking and resulting death, and yet Parker’s hold on him is too strong to shake.
At this point, it’s clear that while the Colonel aggressively presents himself as Elvis’ protector, he shows little to no genuine affection for his star client, seeing him merely as a source of income. With Gladys gone, it leaves an emotional void around the main character, who may be true to life, but robs the film of immediacy. Even his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) doesn’t do enough to counter this, which drives Elvis apart just as Luhrmann should bring us closer together.
Too often, Luhrmann constructs sequences as isolated vignettes rather than part of an ever-flowing narrative, for example a romantic montage of Elvis and Priscilla in Germany during his military service, on a lovely, wispy Kasey Musgraves cover of ” Can’t Help Fall in love.” The streak is sweet and dreamy, but that’s no substitute for getting to know Priscilla, a role barely drawn beneath hairstyles and knockout fashions.
The action moves through the rise and fall of Elvis’ movie career without lingering long (no Ann-Margret portrayal, unfortunately), but finds juicy detail in NBC’s comeback special in 1968. It is designed by Parker as a Christmas family special and a new merchandising opportunity for nerdy sweaters. But Elvis’ frustration with his career downturn drives him to take his old friend Jerry Schilling’s (Luke Bracey) advice and rework it his way, angering Parker and the show’s sponsors at Singer. .
Director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) revamps the special, putting Elvis on a small stage surrounded by a television audience. The raw rock ‘n’ roll ensemble reaffirms Elvis’ influential place in American popular music just as it risks obsolescence. The recreated production numbers are awesome, featuring a gospel choir, “brothel” dancers, and kung fu fighters. Elvis also ignores the Colonel’s insistence on concluding with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, instead performing the original protest song, “If I Can Dream”, which resonates powerfully just two months after Martin’s assassination. Luther King Jr.
The attention paid to Elvis to the 1968 special suggests how much Presley’s brighter star might have burned out had he gotten out of Parker’s control more often. But when he tries to get out of it, the Colonel convinces him to commit to five years at $5 million a year in Vegas, stalling the international tour plan of the management team members who seem to actually take into account their well-being. Parker’s puppet mastery is revealed not only in his gambling debts, but also in his undocumented status in the United States, which would have been revealed had he left the country.
Of course, it’s ultimately a tragedy, and a different filmmaker less consumed by the scale and copper of his enterprise might have dug deeper into the pathos. But there are poignant moments, particularly in Butler’s performance as he transforms into the bloated, sweaty Elvis of his later years (luckily his prosthetics are less gruesome than Hanks’), his marriage to Priscilla unravels. dissolves and causes grief to both of them. .
One could wish for a biopic with more access to the subject’s bruised and bleeding heart, but in terms of capturing the essence of what made Presley such a super nova, Elvis achieves a lot.
The live performance footage is electrifying, shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker with quick movements to match Presley’s dynamic physique and with intimacy to capture the melting feeling he poured into his songs. The bold use of color and lighting is stunning. The same goes for production design by Luhrmann’s wife and longtime collaborator Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy; likewise, Martin’s utterly fabulous costumes.
Luhrmann is often criticized for molding materials to serve his style rather than refining his style to fit the material. Many will dismiss this film’s relentless flamboyance as an explosive Baz in ADHD overdrive, a work of shimmering surfaces that refuses to stop long enough to get under its subject’s skin. But as a tribute from one champion of outrageous showmanship to another, it dazzles.