Australian director Baz Luhrmann has one of the most distinct maximalist aesthetics in cinema. In conjunction with his partner Catherine Martin, Luhrmann has made some of the most over the top entries into Australia’s cinematic canon. From his free-wheeling adaptations of Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet) to his excessive telling of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann hasn’t met a story he couldn’t push to visual chaos. It is for precisely this reason that he turns out to be the perfect director to tell the story of a performer who also shone in excess, Elvis Presley. Luhrmann’s directorial bag of tricks, which are seen on full display in the pseudo biopic, match the frenetic and ultimately tragic life of ‘The King of Rock and Roll.’
Elvis’ story is narrated by Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) as he lays dying in 1997. Parker, a venal yet canny manager relates his days as a carny and how he learned to give the people a show they’d believe regardless of the reality behind it. Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy in their production design create a Nightmare Alley aesthetic for the early Parker scenes, with the implication being that Parker essentially used Elvis (Austin Butler) as a geek; happy to fill his need for whatever he wanted to ensure his absolute loyalty.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo Mississippi to Gladys (Helen Thomson) and Vernon Presley (Richard Roxburgh). Elvis’ young life was marked by two things: poverty and immersion into the Black community of the South. Luhrmann juxtaposes the ecstatic reaction that young Elvis has to blues and gospel music with his outsider status. Although visually spectacular (as can be said for the whole film), there is a misguided attempt to position Elvis as a white black man. Indeed, one could argue that Elvis’ early success is predicated on the fact that he was a white man recording black music. When Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee) plays one of Elvis’ early Sun Records recordings in the company of Parker, the point is unsubtly made that the voice delivering the ‘black sound’ comes from a white boy.
Luhrmann takes us from Elvis’ early days touring with Hank Snow (David Wenham) and his inevitable partnership with Parker. Parker, with his bizarre Dutch-Southern accent narrates how he turned a “skinny boy into a superhero.” With his Beale Street suits and irrepressible energy, Elvis soon becomes the headliner for the tour and signs a deal with Parker – a deal that turns into a monkey’s paw nightmare for the performer.
Elvis is less concerned with being a biopic as it is with being a musical. Luhrmann’s decision to place most of the action on stage (whether it be performances by Elvis, Little Richard (Alton Mason), or B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is what keeps the momentum of the film. Luhrmann is less interested in Elvis’ internal life, as evidenced by the complete underuse of Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley. The film also circles hagiography territory with what it chooses to leave out. Elvis is seen crying at the loss of Martin Luther King Jr and Ted Kennedy, yet it never shows his admiration for Nixon and his push to remove “degenerate music” like The Beatles. Elvis is about the show and it’s down to Austin Butler to sell it – and sell it he does.
Butler as Elvis is one of the most effective pieces of casting in a musical biopic in recent memory. Instead of doing an “impression” of Elvis, Butler uncannily transforms into the man. Butler sings a significant part of the soundtrack, and it takes a careful ear to discern which parts are his voice and which parts belong to Elvis. As Luhrmann splices real footage of Elvis into the film, it also becomes difficult to see anyone but Butler. In an age where a passable impression of a performer is enough to gain accolades (see Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman, or Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy) Butler’s performance outstrips them all. Considering Butler’s biggest part thus far has been as Tex in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, it’s a career defining role and one that will likely attract the attention of The Academy.
Less successful is Hanks as Parker. Buried deep in prosthetics, his performance is almost a caricature. Parker exists as a focal point to elucidate how much Elvis was let down by those who professed to care for him. Richard Roxburgh’s Vernon Presley is more effective as a character who wilfully put his son in danger to reap the rewards of his talents.
It’s almost impossible to tell the full story of Elvis Presley, and it seems that Luhrmann isn’t really interested in doing that. We don’t really see his physical decline; his whole film career is relegated to a montage. What we do get is a top tier musical which blends the work of Elvis with contemporary artists to reinforce just how important Elvis’ legacy is. Elvis works best when it embraces his artistry as a performer and falls flat when it seeks to interrogate him as a man. Butler gives his all to portray Elvis as a man that runs the gamut from naïf, to rebel, to a man locked in his own hubris, but the script written by Luhrmann and frequent collaborator Craig Pearce and others doesn’t quite give him a lot to work with.
Scripting has never been Luhrmann’s strength. It’s his visual acuity that draws people to his films and working in conjunction with cinematographer Mandy Walker, he has created a sequined glory. Although filmed entirely in Australia, Luhrmann manages to make Elvis feel like a distinctly American creation, in effect echoing The King himself.
Although the film does have its issues, Elvis is a phenomenal audio-visual feast that uses Austin Butler’s superb performance to create a substantial musical. Less is not more when it comes to The King, and it’s difficult to think of a better director than Luhrmann to put on a magnificent show.
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