Elvis Is a Sprawling, Frustratingly Sanitized American Epic

Movies Reviews Baz Luhrmann
Elvis Is a Sprawling, Frustratingly Sanitized American Epic

More somatic threat than motion picture, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis—the rhinestoned belt buckle of musical biopics—is like a sneeze into a bullhorn: Incoherent at volcanic decibels. Luhrmann’s sprawling, confused epic spans the entirety of Elvis Presley’s professional career, from his Sun Records days to his controversial leg shaking, Vegas residency and Paramount Pictures deal. True to life, Elvis (Austin Butler) does not pilot the narrative. The film is more of a cautionary tale about corporate sovereignty by way of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the avaricious manager who ushered the young star into a record deal with RCA Victor and many subsequent Hollywood pictures before gambling away his hefty profits.

All of Luhrmann’s maximalist flavors are on display: Breakneck editing, splashy scenery, crotch shots, selective overacting (the culprit here being Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Jimmie Rodgers Snow, a delight). The film’s first hour echoes Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby most patently, splicing songs by Doja Cat and Denzel Curry into its conservative setting and throwing editing etiquette to the wind. It’s a film so enamored by the idea of Elvis, unencumbered by the thornier specifics of his life which might burst its central bubble of leather suits, red bulbs and honky-tonk goodwill.

Admittedly, the trailer did wrong by Butler, clipping together some of his worst line readings and lip curling. Butler’s Elvis is mostly charming, conjuring the star’s recognizable gestures without sliding into caricature—no easy feat when playing perhaps the most imitated man of all time. Especially in Elvis’ early days, where Butler sings and hip-thrusts in zoot suits, he superbly encapsulates a jittery young man realizing his potential in real time. (Denzel Washington cold-called Luhrmann to recommend Butler for the role after acting alongside him in the 2018 stage revival of The Iceman Cometh.)

The trailer was right on the money about Hanks, however, whose performance skates far past bizarre or camp and into truly abject territory. In what was presumably an effort to ridicule Parker, Hanks and Luhrmann cheapen the circumstances, making Parker’s manipulation appear clownish rather than deliberate. Tacking distracting prosthetics onto Hanks and having him saunter around slot machines with a walker while relaying the details of his fraught relationship to Elvis is forgivable, but the Proto-Slavic accent is sinful.

These dueling performances mirror how Elvis can be easily cleaved into two different films: A plush, fulsome portrayal of stardom and autonomy during an agitated period of American civil rights, and a plodding commiseration of an artist bled dry. The significant portion of the film dedicated to Elvis’ Vegas residency is a slog with none of Luhrmann’s frills to amuse; a fair enough attempt to formally replicate those years, sapping the film of its grandeur and stamina in an effort to communicate Elvis’ personal woes. But on screen it feels unending, disparate from the half that wants so badly to thrill and seduce its audience.

One of the first things you might consider when sketching out Elvis’ life for the screen is how to assess his more contentious qualities: His appropriation of Black artists, pursuit of teenage girls, bitter temper and destructive addictions. At one point, Elvis tearfully watches the news after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which he proclaims has ev-uh-ry-thang to do with him. Another scene sees B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) gently remind Elvis of his whiteness. Though Elvis’ fame certainly coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, however unintentionally, Luhrmann repeatedly cozies up to the idea that he was a champion of Black culture rather than its profiteer. In a film which fervently condemns the exploitation of musicians, this is a calculated omission.

Luhrmann’s Elvis fits squarely alongside his raft of pasteurized leading men: The Romeos, Christians and Gatsbys whose flawed, pathetic sensibilities are spackled over with pity and pomp. Luhrmann and co-writers Craig Pierce, Jeremy Doner and Sam Bromell rinse their screenplay of any introspection, favoring lush sentimentality. Such is the overarching issue with biopics today: They’re incurious, ever-churning flattery machines. It’s clear that Luhrmann has a genuine affection for his eponymous star—having ensured that the film’s contents were above-board with Elvis’ relatives—but even with all of his auteurist trimmings, Elvis shares a narrative flatness with this new wave of musical biopics. A stronger effort might have offset Elvis’ plucky heroism with some critical assessment or at the very least, stylistic consistency. But maybe that’s in the 4-hour cut.

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pierce, Jeremy Doner, Sam Bromell
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Dacre Montgomery
Release Date: June 24, 2022

Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.

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