Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis wants to be the definitive biopic of the King of rock ‘n roll – but it’s too preoccupied with being gaudy and loud.
The story of Elvis Presley seems like the perfect project for Baz Luhrmann – the most maximal of cinematic maximalists. In his 30-year directorial career, Luhrmann has worked infrequently but with deafening volume and kaleidoscopic colour, whether high-kicking through the Parisian camp of Moulin Rouge! or revelling in the champagne-drenched opulence of The Great Gatsby. What could suit him more than a rhinestoned odyssey through the life of rock and roll’s ultimate megastar?
Luhrmann certainly doesn’t scrimp for even a second, delivering a diamond-crusted Warner Bros logo followed by a kinetic opening movement in which the dodgy ticker of Elvis’s long-term manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) is manifested as a spinning roulette wheel. “It doesn’t matter if you do ten stupid things, as long as you do one smart one,” states Parker in his narration – and he could well be describing the film’s director. For everything the movie does right, there’s something unnecessarily loud or massively off-putting.
Over its near-three-hour runtime, Elvis delivers the romantic ideal of an Elvis Presley movie. If you’re after revelation and intrigue, that’s in short supply in this Wikipedia odyssey through the career of the most successful recording artist to ever walk the Earth. In a similar way to Bohemian Rhapsody's play-the-hits take on Queen, this is a path of least resistance depiction of Elvis’s life, framing him as a gilt-edged talent corrupted as a victim of Parker’s manipulations. An early scene draws parallels between Parker’s relationship with Elvis and the idea of the exploited carnival geek, which recently provided a central thread in Guillermo del Toro’s excellent Nightmare Alley.
It’s a potentially thankless leading role for an actor, doomed to sit in the spotlight of a celebrity of Elvis’s level. Ana de Armas will certainly face that later this year when she portrays Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde. Austin Butler, though, rises to the occasion with a sweaty charisma mingling with small-town innocence, stepping into the role after an audition process which included Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort and Harry Styles. Given how frequently Elvis has been parodied and impersonated, it’s a real testament to Butler that he rises above pure mimicry to deliver a rounded and emotionally rich take – inside and outside of the powder-pink suits.
Unfortunately, emotional richness doesn’t seem to intrigue Luhrmann. The film bursts into life in the performance sequences, which thrive amid Butler’s hip-wiggling energy and the director’s undeniable eye for the spectacular. When the story needs to slow down for some dialogue, though, all of that vitality ebbs away to the extent that you can almost feel the film losing interest in its own scenes. When the Colonel’s initial seduction of Elvis is shot on a Ferris wheel, it feels like it has been done purely to stop the director falling asleep behind the camera. There’s a gaudy ugliness to Luhrmann’s films at times, which sometimes works but is often utterly distracting.
This is especially true when it comes to Tom Hanks, who is buried under absurd prosthetics and an even more absurd accent as Colonel Tom Parker. It leaves one of the world’s best actors tasked with an impossible fight to give Parker any sort of nuance. There’s a potentially interesting contrast to be teased out between Hanks’ persona as the nicest man alive and Parker’s Machiavellian manipulations, but the movie never gives Hanks enough room to find this sweet spot.
He’s still better served than Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, given Luhrmann and the three other credited screenwriters run scared from confronting the more difficult elements of their relationship – she was 14 and Elvis was 24 when they met in 1959. Instead, they simply frame her as the tired archetype of the rock star’s wife, left alone with the kids while he’s off singing, shagging and popping pills.
Elvis clearly has ambitions to be the definitive, epic take on the life of the King of Rock and Roll. But in its desire to fit everything in, it skims the surface rather than taking the time to dig deeper in search of a nugget of truth. Fans of the singer will get everything they want from Butler’s lithe performance and the show-stopping glitz of the musical numbers, but nobody will learn anything they didn’t already know. This is the story of an extraordinary man told by an extraordinary director, which makes it all the more disappointing when it feels like just another music biopic – one that loves its sparkle more than its story.
Elvis is released in UK cinemas on 24th June.
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