The Friendly Film Fan Investigates the Baz Luhrmann Biopic
There is certainly no shortage of bad music biopics gracing the streaming or VOD worlds, and no lack of terrible ideas for them coming down the pike for future releases (like who decided the white guy who wrote Bohemian Rhapsody needed to do the badly-titled Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody? Does he only know how to name movies about artists after their own songs?). Many feared that Baz Luhrmann’s take on the rise and fall of the king of rock, one Elvis Presley, would fare a similar fate, and though I cannot in good conscience deny that Elvis is far from a good film, I also cannot discount the notion that – unlike some previously mentioned work – its approach is far more interesting than it has any right to be.
Baz Luhrmann is an interesting figure in the world of film. Whether his features have been hits or not, he’s never truly had one movie stand the test of time as an unassailable classic. Between 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby – both of which have their fans – there’s not truly been one more unifying film of his than 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, which won two Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture, but even that film has its detractors, and no one I know would say that it’s an essential classic on par with some other iconic movie musicals like The Sound of Music or Singin’ in the Rain. (Australia is simply a non-starter as far as acclaim and hardly anyone remembers Strictly Ballroom). If anything, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s one-of-a-kind stylizations that have kept him going in the movie world all these years. Even if one doesn’t typically connect with his work, one is always interested in discovering how he’ll attempt to pull off whatever he’s got coming next.
Elvis is an exhaustingly audacious and unforgettable ride, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it has more on its mind than making you feel as if you’ve just been lifted from its own version of the 50s wholesale, where a gyrating rockstar has somehow driven you into a frenzy for no reason, and by the time you realize it’s over, there’s naught left in you but the minute energy to walk out of the theater and go home. That’s not to say that there aren’t positives to be gleaned from the experience of watching it, but those positives aren’t likely to shine very brightly through what it essentially its own version of an Elvis Presley concert. Dripping in sweat, so frenzied it’s a wonder its own head is kept on straight, and entirely without remorse for the way it jostles the viewer around without reason or purpose, Elvis is exactly what one gets when Baz Luhrmann is the artist behind the lens. Much of the production makes no sense as the film actively avoids answering the question of why it was made now or made in this way, but it’s at least doing something with all the tools at its disposal, whereas most music biopics remain stuck in the age-old trick of “whole life story, no flash, end story.” Elvis is flashy. Elvis is dizzying. It’s simultaneously the fastest-moving movie you’ve ever seen and forty-seven hours long. And yet, though its stylization probably does more to help it seem good to those who don’t recognize (or don’t care about) all the familiar territory it treads, the ambitions of this film stretch so far that whatever else is stuck between its four walls can’t hope to reach anywhere near that length.
The concert sequences work about as well as any concert sequence in a biopic about Elvis would. They are the true measure of its audaciousness, its frenziedness, its endless ferocity. For most of the film, Luhrmann’s style works against it. In quieter scenes, in scenes without much going on, in sequences where we’re meant to be getting intimate with Elvis’ home life, the rapid-fire editing and odd camera angles make it so that we’re too distracted to connect with any of it, but during the concerts, it all comes together, not necessarily to bring iconic sequences to life, but to make one feel as if they’re at a crazy rock show. If anyone is the saving grace of Elvis, it’s Austin Butler as the titular star, and in these concerts, one can feel the energy he’s burning off just as much as the audience (the one in the film, that is) can. Butler is genuinely incredible here, unafraid to dip into the pool of impression when called for but never diving into its deep end. He’s every bit the human being and the character Elvis Presley was, all the good and the bad rolled into a single body that moves as the icon did and sings as the icon would. And yes, the concert sequences are where he stands out most, but it’s the quieter moments where he’s able to slow the audience down just enough to see that he's really put in the work here as a genuine performer.
If anyone threatens the draw of Elvis, however (and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this), it’s America’s Dad, Tom Hanks. Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker, who essentially ran the show for most of the rock star’s career and though it bewilders me to say it, there is no clue as to what Tom Hanks is doing in this role or with his strange accent in this film. Hanks has played so many iconic parts, one couldn’t fit them onto a single Mt Rushmore, but Colonel Tom Parker will not likely be one of them. The accent is distracting from the start, never becoming less so, and the prosthetic makeup they use on him looks genuinely terrible. It’s not exactly a bad performance on its face, but it’s easily the most distracting thing in the film, and because the film is narrated by Parker, it’s usually front-and-center.
That’s not the end of Elvis’ flaws, however, most of which are its over-stylization and reliance on filmmaking techniques that make no sense except as just being different from most others, but one of which is that it doesn’t really seem to have anything to say other than “this is how exhaustive being part of the Elvis train was.” Much has been made in the years since Elvis’ death of his appropriation of Black culture, in particular its musical roots, and while the film doesn’t exactly shy away from the notion of Elvis having grown up around this particular kind of music, it also doesn’t do much to say whether or not it condemned his use of it without much in the way of having given credit to those he took his largest inspiration from, especially as he rose up in an era when civil rights were under even more vicious circumstances than they are now. It’s presentation without condemnation or endorsement, and while it works well enough for the story this movie is telling, those hoping for something deeper may be disappointed to find that Elvis doesn’t really have much to say at all, apart from that he was taken advantage of a lot by Parker and those around him.
Overall, the audaciousness of Elvis acts as both its savior and its ultimate downfall, much like it did for the titular musical icon, and the exhaustion one feels when the whole affair is over may only be comparable to the exhaustion fans felt after seeing Elvis Presley at his best in show. Baz Luhrmann has crafted something unwieldy, undefinable, and partly impossible to revisit in the same way one interacts with it for the first time. Austin Butler is phenomenal as Elvis, but Tom Hanks’ performance as Colonel Tom Parker is one of his most perplexing, and most of the performances from everyone else are fairly forgettable. If one has the patience for Baz Luhrmann’s wild stylizations, I’d recommend Elvis as a theater experience. But only once.
I’m giving “Elvis” a 4.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.