For the first time we take a good look at the title figure of Baz Luhrmann’s caffeinated Wikipedia sensational, Elvis, he steps out of the shadows and onto a stage in Louisiana, ready to perform for a crowd completely unaware that they are about to witness the coronation of the future king of rock “n” roll. Pinkly adorned from shoulder to ankle, the 19-year-old corkscrew hesitates, and the audience, smelling blood, snorts at him. But then Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) launches the opening notes of what will become his first national hit, Baby, Let’s Play House, and as he belts and scratches, his body wobbles and pushes. He moves as if struck by lightning, and the electric current passes through the whole place, shaking, awakening the young women present, their libidos immediately ignited by his suggestive country-preaching turns.
Too many bio images to count include a star being born at a moment like this. But Luhrmann, the unstoppable carnival barking man behind him Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, stages the sequence with a hellzapoppin ‘flirtation that pushes it past a cliché, on to a parody, and then beyond that still, to a feverish pitch of comic hysteria. An electric guitar thunder beautifies the song, sacrificing historical realism on the altar of cross-era, arena rock glory. And the girls don’t just scream. They explode into a kind of involuntary rapture, as if possessed by the spirit of Presley’s crude animal magnetism. Overloading an action-packed music-drama convention, Luhrmann reaches the heights of a myth: The rise of radio as a one-man sexual revolution, unleashing all the recaptured frustration of America’s youth and halving history in the process.
Such energy dominates Elvis. On paper, the film is a pure biographical series, linking 25 years of bullet points in the life and career of the best-selling solo artist of all time. However Luhrmann is no reviewer or famous historian. Right from the start, he cuts the musical biopic into a crazy blast, caricaturing its familiar beats, tackling its commitments with a scrapbook collage of headlines and crowd shots and split-screen action. Elvis is structured as an almost three-hour sizzle reel. It doesn’t have as many scenes as the series. It moves.
Luhrmann’s MTV overspeed approach could be as strategic as it is pathological. Elvis can only cover all the ground it needs to cover with warp speed, telling elements of its decade-long true story through implication and shorthand. I raise her to fame. The fight against scandalized moral reproaches. The subsequent backlash to the committed, priest-friendly Elvis, who is essentially the singer’s Dylan-go electric moment in reverse. Elvis runs through all of it. Meanwhile, the King’s career in Hollywood is relegated to a single, sleek Technicolor montage. His service abroad is completely overlooked.
To the extent that this maximist Graceland magazine has a dramatic center, it is the initially symbiotic, increasingly parasitic relationship between Elvis and his notoriously exploitative manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The script, an obvious rag from sketches by Luhrmann and others, begins the story with Parker capturing the scent of the superstar in an embryonic stage. (His discovery that the million-dollar voice on the radio belongs to a white man is accompanied by a hilarious crashing zoom into Hanks’ face, disguised as a fake nose, and enlivened with shock and the lust of opportunity). Parker ends up seducing Elvis into a contract at the marketplaces, emitting his Faust pitch at the top of a Parisian wheel. Incidentally, this is an innocent lost story: One montage of many cross-cut Elvis losing his virginity with shots of his mother caring.
What Parker calculated was the enormous commercial potential in Presley’s cultural vulture, the way he repackaged for a white audience the sound and movements of the Black artists he had listened to in his youth. Elvis will naturally unravel that aspect of the musician’s rag-to-rich story, even folding it into the Walk Hard tropes it enlivens: As the king strives to the stage, Luhrmann cuts to footage of pre-teen Presley spying on a court performance of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, a real challenger for the title of the father of rock. Later, an excitingly assembled sequence depicts Elvis literally walking between white and black America, at home on the lawn of a plantation and on Beale Street. The film understands the real threat that conservatives have seen in Elvis – their fear of not only his exaggerated sexuality but also of the Black culture on which he profitably capitalized.
Parker recounts the film, repeatedly insisting that Elvis ’eventual demise and death was a product of his relentless devotion to arranging a show, even when what we see puts the blame more directly on the compassionate, controlling advice of his manager. That’s a potentially ingenious angle, to frame the story around its villain’s unreliable deviations. Hanks, however, is unusually, almost impressively terrible in the role. The casting makes sense in theory, arming the essential paternal decency of our most trusted Hollywood star into a manipulation tactic. But even a film so outrageously augmented cannot sustain the greasy absurdity of Hanks ’performance that unites malice. Austin Powers makeup with a really weird, vaudeville Nordic accent that sounds almost nothing like how the real man really spoke. Hanks is just too ridiculous to take seriously here, and his scenes tip the film loosely close to sketch comedy.
Butler, sweating profusely though spinning a wardrobe of famously fashionable clothes, feels better like The King. It’s a print-legendary performance, completely fan-famous and pinup-boy posing, with a lot more attitude – and sexual appeal – than psychology. But that fits a biofilm with a greater interest in the seismic legend of Elvis than who he really was under all the supernova charisma and sequined white wholes. That Butler sometimes looks not so much like Elvis as any number of lightning-in-the-pan acts indebted to the artist’s style only reinforce Luhrmann’s implicit concept of rock history as a telephone game, distorting the original voice with each new delivery or generation. .
Elvis is everywhere, the film claims – an idea it communicates with a soundtrack that slows down and airs big hits like “Fools Rush In”, remixing them into a series of ghostly hymns echoing from pop culture consciousness. The director of Moulin Rouge also, of course, provided his jukebox with anachronistic pin drops, alternating hip-hop with modern covers of The King to emphasize how Elvis ’original act of appropriation is just one chapter in the twisting path of American popular music. It’s a more successfully drawn link than the film’s many attempts to put Elvis against the tumultuous backdrop of mid-century news. Maybe Hanks is really around to fortify the Forrest Gump associations of a script that periodically drifts to TV and the murders reported on it.
After two or more hours of relentless over-cut summary, the film slows down and runs out. An essential component of the Elvis story is the fallen part of it – those final vile years in Vegagas, when the man ran out of returns, got hooked on pills, and became a prisoner to his casino apartment and the parker that Parker had on his. paperback. It’s where the plot has to go, but obediently dramatizing the last act of this life, Luhrmann sucks all the wild enthusiasm out of his material. The final act is a costly downfall in a tragically advanced conclusion, covered in mandatory archival footage.
Where it lives, before that, is on stage. Here, Butler’s suffocating costume party of light gels with Luhrmann’s sharp second concern to produce something like a monument to Elvis ’mythology. The film endures, for much of its swollen runtime, on the ecstatic, silly dreaming of its show – the way it channels the king’s trembling stage presence through a breathless burst of image and sound, trying to whip the audience into the same. madness that Elvis inspired in his own life. How, Luhrmann bets, can we measure the life of this monumental, destabilizing figure by anything less than dizzying extravagance? Here and there, the excess of his vision pays off, changing from exhausting to joyful.