‘Elvis’ allows Baz Luhrmann to do his thing; maybe too much
This biopic about the late King of Rock and Roll’s life fails to deliver a nuanced look at the singer, but certainly succeeds in being a Luhrmann film
There are several points within Elvis’s first hour that use highly edited montages to convey the life of a young Mr. Presley as he first starts to hit the big time. In these moments, rapid shots cut in-between Elvis, the sweat on his brow, legions of screaming women, their underwear being flung towards the stage and the hypnotic movement of the rock and roll royalty’s lower half. These moments are terrifyingly fast-paced, feverish and bordering on the truly incoherent as Baz Luhrmann feeds you an anachronistic, gaudy meal that threatens to make you ill with its freneticism.
But despite the fact that it shouldn’t work, it’s hard not to get swept up in the fever that Elvis has for its titular icon. So much emphasis is given on the effect that the late Presley had on the people around him in his mid-20th century era, highly emphasised by shots of the audience engulfed in his magnetic stage presence. Luhrmann simply isn’t that interested in a thorough investigation of Elvis the man, even though he acknowledges some of Presley’s retrospectively problematic behaviours.
What’s created is more a pastiche of Presley the icon rather than a true representation, but honestly? I think that’s okay when the wave of the film crashes over you, as you give into the infectious nature of Austin Butler’s stellar performance and Luhrmann’s clear enthusiasm for the world that he’s created. Would I call Elvis a ‘good’ film? I don’t know, but I still had a pretty good time with it.
To no one’s surprise, Elvis begins in a whirlwind of eager visuals and opulence. I’m not even referring to the actual beginning of the film; I mean when the Warner Brothers logo appears out of a kaleidoscope of gold and jewels. Before you even have time to process that, you’re pushed into the deep end of a liquid gold pool with no bottom, swallowed by an ecstatic array of flashing lights, rapid cuts and funny voices. At first we only see glimpses of Butler with the slick black hair, the sideburns and the extravagant outfits seemingly as memories of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s long-time manager on his death bed.
The film makes the decision to frame the story of Elvis from the perspective of the Colonel, played by Tom Hanks in a verifiably unique performance, Presley’s long-time manager who exploited and manipulated the man for his own personal benefit. In doing so, it explores the increasingly frayed and complicated relationship of these two characters and, importantly, frames the character of Elvis outside of the perspective of the film. More than any other music biopic, it feels like we are WATCHING Elvis in Elvis, rather than receiving a hackneyed history lesson from the perspective of Presley.
Adding to that sense of ‘seeing’ Elvis is Austin Butler’s performance. Compared to recent biopics about music icons, Elvis runs away with a great performance from its lead that, at the very least, captures what I imagine the sensation of seeing Presley was like. I’m no Elvis scholar, or even a casual fan, but I’ve got that idea about Elvis in the back of my mind. Butler catches that exceptionally as he moves his hips all the while talking and singing in that identifiably deep voice that makes words near unidentifiable.
Compared to something like Rami Malek’s snooze-inducing performance in Bohemian Rhapsody, Butler certainly captures a much more frenetic, Luhrmann-esque excitement for the character that he plays which is matched by an equally feverous sense of editing and filmmaking. There are several points in the film where the average time between cuts can be no more than a second, creating a total overload of information through a variety of different shots and a highly surprising amount of animated graphics.
That overload is highly supplemented by the music, which involves an eclectic mix of Butler singing early Elvis songs and a bizarre amount of modern pop songs. “Is that Doja Cat?” was not a question I ever expected I had to ask in a biopic about Elvis Presley, nor did I necessarily expect there to be a mash-up of Toxic and Backstreet’s Back while the king of rock and roll and his posse pose for the camera walking down a luscious red plane interior. It’s seriously something that could only come from Baz Luhrmann. Which, despite my distaste for some of his other work, is why I think Baz Luhrmann’s vision of Elvis kind of works. Kind of is definitely the operative phrase here — anyone expecting a nuanced and deep reading of the late singer’s life will be left sorely disappointed.
What’s perhaps more bizarre is that the film has hints of something more insightful. It properly acknowledges how Presley “borrowed” a lot from music pioneered by Black artists by showing him as definitively inspired by them, but will then present him playing their music with little comment. Furthermore, it rather quickly glosses over the fact he met his wife Priscilla when she was only 14 years old and he was 24 and on military service, simply labelling her a ‘teenager’. These are obviously integral parts of the Elvis story, but to so openly mention them and then provide little commentary after the fact feels a little strange.
Another problem that works heavily against Elvis is its runtime. For every insanely edited sequence comes a scene that brings the pace down to a screeching halt, making the tedium of the script become grossly apparent. You might begin to notice that the film recycles approximately the same narrative for all three of its acts, feeling episodic in a way that would maybe feel less apparent on TV but becomes stupidly noticeable after you check the time in the theatre.
Yet despite the occasional boredom, Elvis is merely stuffed with so much of everything — emotion, visuals, editing, music — that it’s hard to feel genuinely fatigued by any single thing. For every snoozer sequence is a magnetic Austin Butler moving like a madman and shoving the microphone in his mouth not once, but twice. Any time it threatens to veer into dangerously standard biopic territory, Luhrmann seemingly challenges himself to defibrillate an audience’s dying attention back to life no matter the cost.
I find it difficult to identify if Elvis is actually a good film. I can’t deny that I did ‘enjoy’ it, but mainly for its utterly committed and self-assured insanity rather than for its commentary on the music industry and one of its biggest icons. Luhrmann thrives most when he is communicating feelings and vibes rather than impactful story beats, and that wave of tone is somewhat difficult not to get swept up by. I might not want to even approach Elvis’s ocean for a long time, but I doubt I’ll forget how I felt swimming in it.