A Review of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Photograph: Warner Bros.

There’s undeniably something attractive about artists who can’t be anyone but themselves – especially filmmakers who bring 100% of their personality to every project, whether or not they need a lot. Baz Luhrmann is one of those artists, and that should have made him the perfect director for Elvis, the life story of Elvis Presley, a unique artist in his own right. Unfortunately, what the public gets from Luhrmann is simply too much.: His quick-cut super-assembly style dominates the subject, and the result is an impressionistic, muddled highlight reel of Presley’s many accomplishments, despite actor Austin Butler’s vivid recreations as The King.

That Luhrmann recruits Tom Hanks to play Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s calculating manager, is no doubt intended to show both the control that Presley lacked in his career and the irrepressible talent and charisma that transcended that control. But the director’s oppressive style, always seeking a blinding and fast-paced depiction of events that are already Interesting enough in its own right, it unfortunately revisits this trauma about the late star twice – first by Parker onscreen and then by the filmmaker as his would-be biographer.

Hanks, as Parker, narrates the film, which is at least as much his as it is Presley’s. A music promoter shepherding singer Hank Snow from magazine to magazine, he crosses paths with Elvis shortly after the release of “That’s All Right” on Sun Records and immediately sees the commercial potential – especially when the young singer causes eruptions of excitement. spontaneous response from another gentle crowd. For his part, Presley is simply tapping into the twin influences of rhythm & blues and gospel that he experienced growing up in Memphis’ poorer, blacker neighborhoods. But Parker, seeing dollar signs on the young man’s hips, soon seduces the singer away from his Sun contract with the security of a home that would become Graceland, and the promise of a family business run by his well-meaning but irresponsible father. Vernon. Richard Roxburgh).

Presley’s half-Pentecostal/half-porn spins on a handful of television appearances soon get him into trouble with a white moral majority who fear his closeness — musical or otherwise — to the black artists who inspired him. Parker suggests that enlisting in the Army (even if IRL Elvis was drafted) will appease his critics and perhaps work some of the rebellious energy that underpins his mesmerizing charisma. While serving in Germany, Presley meets a military man’s daughter, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who later becomes his wife; after returning to the United States, he transitions to film acting, an effort that consumes much of his fanbase and, with each throwaway project, diminishes his goal of becoming a serious actor “like James Dean”.

Returning to music with a television special in 1968, Presley reignites his career and makes plans for a world tour. But when Parker’s gambling debts – and his mysterious past – threaten to overtake him, the manager manipulates his star into settling into a years-long Las Vegas residency, 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 an indicator of the cultural and political changes in America between the 1950s and the late 1960s, but he gives selective attention, at best, to what even a casual Elvis historian does. would call “central” moments, from his early recordings to his reactions to the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It’s not news to note that the filmmaker has a terminal fear of silence or stillness, but Luhrmann begins cannibalizing 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 ball of slime, the film never adds new or significant dimensions to that portrait.

Despite Parker’s repeated efforts (on screen and supposedly in real life) to tame his client, one thing Luhrmann effectively captures is how Presley simultaneously kick-started the country’s sexual awakening and came to embody it, through black music — the “race logs”. ”—which the young man lent so liberally and lovingly. Hopefully there were at least a few young gay men as comfortably thirsty while watching Presley’s first major TV appearance in the 1950s as the one portrayed in the film. But what’s fascinating (and fun) to watch is the way in which a largely unknown amount, especially among white audiences, Presley’s music and movements garnered feelings that few fans previously had, and consequently were powerless to resist. them, in part because they were unable to fully understand them.

Like Elvis, Butler is quite phenomenal; playing the singer from his teens to his final days, singing, dancing, (briefly) getting fat and all, there are no cracks in his performance (I don’t know how many of the vocal performances were his, and I’m not especially careful). If as an actor he exudes a little more danger – at least by the standards of contemporary aesthetics –than the real Elvis, seems like the right choice under a filmmaker incapable of subtlety. But in terms of depth and character identity, Butler navigates a fine spider’s web line between Luhrmann’s noisy machines.

More disconcerting – even catastrophic – is Hanks’ turn as Tom Parker, whose seething Dutch roots were distantly identifiable in real life but are amplified here by an accent better suited to one of Austin Powers’ foes. Despite the simply poor choice to tell the story of one of the most iconic artists from the perspective of his rogue manager, Hanks maintains a consistent veneer of menace and lack of trust, right down to his cryptic descriptions of Presley as the singer’s cultural stature grows throughout the movie. Hanks is supposed to deserve credit for finally playing an outright villain for the first time in his career, but he plays Parker as a demon who seems clear he was incited, to his detriment, by Luhrmann’s exaggerated excesses.

ELVIS by Baz Luhrmann | official trailer

Luhrmann, who co-wrote, produced and directed the film, revisits some of his past tricks of The big Gatsby and red mill to give Presley contemporary relevance, weaving a musical tapestry of the singer’s hits and songs by contemporary artists. But like everything else in the film, they are mixed together to no significant effect as he tries too hard to half-recreate costumes, sets and locations from periods in his model’s life. Somehow Elvis’ Las Vegas show looks exactly rendered, but the director fails to convincingly stage scenes that take place on an airstrip or atop a hill in Hollywood.

One can imagine that, for Luhrmann, such criticisms roll like Brylcreem water onto the young Elvis’s impeccably decorated forelock – or perhaps they are unimportant to someone so entrenched in cartoon theatrics. But when you feel like you know less about a subject after a movie than you did 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 this – for himself, at least – in trying to tell Presley’s story. But as a coda to a career that probably can’t be contained in a film by anyone, least of all this particular filmmaker, Elvis sadly reiterates the line of his legacy: it’s another example of artists exploiting Presley in pursuit of their own greatness rather than honoring his.

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