‘Elvis’: Baz Luhrmann’s Kaleidoscopic and Feverish Portrait of the King
American history and music come together in Elvis Presley like one unstoppable force. To understand how rock ‘n’ roll came to be means comprehending its birth out of a slew of influences including gospel, country and rhythm and blues. Director Baz Luhrmann’s delirious “Elvis” has the admirable quality of visualizing the Black American roots of rock music with feverish energy, even as it rushes at rocket speed through all the highlights of Presley’s well-known story. This is a gargantuan, 2 hour and 39-minute behemoth of a movie that molds the iconography of the singer and the ‘50s into a swirling mass of montages, collages and music video images. It’s not really a serious biopic but more of an aesthetic ride. Crucial to the effect is an impressive, exhaustive performance by Austin Butler as Elvis, who manages to make the role his own, a far from easy feat. By the end, when Presley’s downfall is the stuff of tragic opera, we’re worn out.
Luhrmann has little intention of being iconoclastic towards Presley, so he chooses as his flawed, Faustian villain Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who we see wandering as an aged, haunted man through Las Vegas casinos insisting to us that he did not kill Elvis. It was Parker who set out to turn Presley into a global phenomenon. Parker is a shadowy presence throughout a story that begs in Tupelo, Mississippi, where young Elvis hangs out in the Black quarters of town and is stirred by the gospel music at tent revivals and Black Pentecostal church services. In his mind this combines with the rhythm and blues he hears at venues less suitable for children. Parker first hears Elvis on the radio when “That’s Alright Mama,” from his debut single cut at Sun Records, hits the airwaves. The old carnival veteran instantly sees potential in the 19-year-old talent. He’s utterly convinced when seeing Elvis drive a crowd of teen girls into sexual frenzy at a Texarkana, Arkansas dance hall performance, complete with those infamous swiveling hips. The rest hurtles through history, including Elvis sparking controversy and devotion in equal measure. He goes into the army, meets and marries Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), builds Graceland, makes movies and feels the passage of time. Parker tries to keep Elvis from going too much against the grain, because this is a business, after all. Eventually he will entrap The King in a Las Vegas residency that will sap his soul.
“Elvis” is part fact and part fantasia. Luhrmann has never defined subtly in his work. He basks in luxuriant, melodramatic flourishes meant to bedazzle. His “Moulin Rouge” was pure cabaret excess and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet” turned the classic play into a ‘90s gangster saga, with guns fit for art galleries. Luhrmann’s strength has been precisely in taking the familiar and deconstructing it into sumptuously wild shows, like his “The Great Gatsby.” But with Elvis Presley we’re not dealing with fiction. This is a real life that still casts a long shadow over pop culture. For whatever reason, Luhrmann hasn’t chosen to make his movie about Elvis Presley from the subject’s point of view, but from Tom Parker’s, as if the story needs a villain to carry narrative weight. As played by Tom Hanks under heavy makeup, Parker is represented as a cartoonish manipulator who cackles in close-ups and twiddles a cigar in his fingers. As Elvis grows in stature, Parker becomes more aggressively cautious. When the ‘60s come around, he’s nervous about Elvis being influenced by the counterculture. Elvis’s decision to wear black leather for his legendary 1968 comeback special is written as an utter defiance of Parker’s conservative ways. Prior to that, he tries to get the singer to cave in to pro-segregationist right-wingers who fear rock ‘n’ roll is making white kids dance to Black rhythms. It’s not that Parker agrees with the racists, he just wants to make sure the money keeps flowing in. It’s all captured in rapid-fire edits and revelations like Parker being cornered by investigators who discover his public image is a charade. His actual status as an undocumented Dutch immigrant will later lead him to keep Elvis from touring abroad.
Crunched in with the Parker intrigue is what amounts to visually exhilarating snapshots of Elvis’s overall life. They are colorful dramatizations of the famous details like his closeness to mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), who warns her son wealth won’t bring real happiness. Meeting teenage Priscilla overseas while stationed in Germany is covered in a blink with one scene where the two listen to records in his room. For the rest of the movie she’s a virtual cameo or bystander, with little to say other than giving Elvis hugs and support. Like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the more debauched details are left out. In her own book, “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla details the early use of pills within a haze of sleeping all day and going out partying all night, the subsequent affairs and late night limo rides where Elvis would jump out to save someone getting jumped. Luhrmann does keep the famous anecdote of a distraught Elvis shooting out TVs with a gun in his suite. His wandering eye is attributed to Parker keeping him in a golden cage, while Parker tells us Elvis just reserved all of his real love for the audience. But there’s no deeper probing because all the dialogue amounts to slogans. Elvis always speaks like his iconic posters coming to life. In 1968 he watches the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy on TV and responds with magnanimous phrases (“we gotta say something”). Some of this does turn into cinematic fun, as when he makes Parker believe he’ll close the ‘68 special with a Christmas song and instead belts the soaring “If I Can Dream” as a response to the turmoil in America.
As a visual experience “Elvis” does pack plenty of thrilling moments, driven by Austin Butler who captures both the swag and energy of Presley. He’s a good kid who gets handed the world. At his best, Butler can seem as possessed on stage as Val Kilmer in “The Doors” and Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He’s dynamic in the concert sequences, which Luhrmann films and edits in a style to bridge the past and present. When Elvis drives them wild in Texarkana, the camera emphasizes his swiveling hips and on the soundtrack we hear the sudden hint of a hard rock electric guitar, as if we’re getting a glimpse at what Elvis is unknowingly planting the seeds for. Black and white, newsreel footage, color, comic book panels, pop-up labels, and meticulous digital inclusions of Butler in classic Elvis movies can create an overwhelming visual, sonic experience. The soundtrack mixes classic Elvis numbers like “Hound Dog” with hip-hop. Single frames look like vintage ‘50s artwork come to life.
What is most important aesthetically is how Elvis is placed in scenes with important Black artists like Little Richard (Alton Mason), B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), and Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). It’s not perfect, but still an admirable attempt at acknowledging how rock ‘n’ roll as an American form of music owes so much to Black American culture. Before Elvis sings classics like “Hound Dog” and “That’s Alright Mamma,” we hear the rhythm and blues originals being sung at bars and dives. In probably the film’s best concert sequence, Elvis defies Parker by singing “Heartbreak Hotel” with fierce intensity at a segregated concert where the cops can do little to stop the crowd from starting to intermingle. Rock music became a key salvo aimed at what amounted to an apartheid state. Curiously, Luhrmann does avoid more of Elvis’s love for gospel. He tells friends blues and gospel is the music that makes him truly happy, but the narrative skips over his still potent gospel records.
The final act of “Elvis” turns into a bit of a repetitive slog as Parker cuts a deal with the owners of the International Hotel in Vegas, to whom he owes a mountain of debt, to keep Elvis performing first for six weeks, then for five years. Per the movie, the residency at the International is what sapped Elvis of his last fighting will, made worse when he discovers others around him have been leeching off his fortune. Oddly enough, Luhrmann avoids giving us the bloated, slurring Elvis of the later years, keeping Butler nice and slim except for a recreation of Elvis crooning “Unchained Melody” in concert soon before his death in 1977. More evocative is a moment with Priscilla where he laments a life of fame with the feeling of having done little. The same can be said for “Elvis” as a movie. It does a lot in terms of visual energy and a great soundtrack, but leaves little new to be said about an American icon of this stature. Take out the Colonel and there would be more room for the real star. It’s both fun and yet more of an introduction, bold yet overlong. What can’t be called is boring, which is fitting because that could rarely be said about Elvis Presley.
“Elvis” releases June 24 in theaters nationwide.