Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a dizzying, powerful work of pop-culture fantasy

Austin Butler as Elvis.Warner Bros.

Elvis

Classification: PG; 159 minutes

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Written by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce

Starring Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge and Tom Hanks

Opens in theaters June 24


Critics Pick


The world has had a number of delightfully strange, and strangely powerful, on-screen Elvises.

Val Kilmer, 100 per cent. Harvey Keitel, why not? Michael Shannon, I’ll take it. Bruce Campbell, of course, especially if he’s fighting ancient Egyptian mummies. And Kurt Russell, heck yeah – twice, even, if you count 3000 Miles to Gracelandwhich you maybe probably shouldn’t.

But we have never had an Elvis Presley played by the walking, talking, cinematic sex-bomb wonder that is Austin Butler. More importantly: We have never had such a performance – a fearsomely committed, hip-thrusting act of pure actorly subservience to not necessarily character, but an entire culture’s concept of character – be captured via the unrelenting vision of a director like Baz Luhrmann.

All of which means that, yes, the pair’s new super-sized movie, Elvis, is an instant piece of essential pop. But the film is not an easy, chart-topping sensation fresh off the hit-factory floor. Elvis the singer only wanted the love of his audience from him. Elvis the movie asks for a whole lot more.

Endurance, for starters, as these epic runs as long as the man’s sideburns were wide. But Luhrmann’s film also requires moviegoers to maintain a strong sense of disbelief, an affinity for historical revisionism and a buckle-up tolerance for the kind of gaudy, high-gloss, drown-you-in-technicolor camp that will test your uninterrupted-viewing limits. Elvis is as much a ride following the highs and lows of the musician’s fabulously rich and sad life as it is a one-way journey into the extremities of its director’s exhaustive imagination. For better, and worse.

From left: Butler, Helen Thomson as Gladys, Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Richard Roxburgh as Vernon.Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.

Among the many (so many!) curious choices that Luhrmann makes here, his most funhouse-mirror-logic one is to tell Elvis Presley’s entire life story through the narrow perspective of his cruel, corrupt and corpulent manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks under layers of fake fat and several tongues’ worth of untraceable accents. Opening with Parker on his casino-floor deathbed, Elvis being the Rosebud of the villain’s Citizen Kane-sized delusions of grandeur, Luhrmann’s film teases the tension between one man’s artistic gifts and another’s talent for deception.

Elvis, Parker argues, could have been a go-nowhere county-fair attraction were it not for the manager’s snake-like prowess for squeezing the margins of showbiz – an argument that the film itself doesn’t exactly disagree with. Stars are born all the time, but phenomena are managed.

Hopscotching years in often a single beat, the screenplay by Luhrmann and his co-writers Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce pieces together a dizzying puzzle of a musical genius, consummate showman and, ultimately, financial naïf that is both provocative and respectful. While much of the film’s hyper-stylized aesthetics approach the level of live-action cartoon, Elvis himself is given vivid, sharp, delicate life by Butler.

This is not your Elvis or my Elvis and certainly not your parents’ Elvis.Warner Bros.

The actor’s every stare, lip snarl and to-the-rafters howl feels pure and un-coaxed, a neat sort of magic trick that could perhaps only be delivered from such a relatively untested, fresh face. (Butler’s singing voice is blended with Elvis’s own for the film’s many musical numbers, which lends to Luhrmann’s desired pitch of historical fantasia). I hate to say that Butler will forever be defined by this role. But if his career might start and stop because of him Elviswell, there are worse fates.

Like, perhaps, whatever reception awaits Hanks on the other end of this movie’s run. Already, the actor’s big-in-all-ways performance is being dragged through the discourse-a-thon industrial complex, with most thrashing his mustache-twirling turn of him as smoked ham gone rancid. But I only see an actor who, recognizing the thin-air heights that his director is aiming for, tries to race his own way to the top of Mount Ridiculous, guttural laughing all the way.

This is, after all, a Baz Luhrmann production. Anyone expecting restraint should not bother to walk through Elvis’s fabulously appointed door in the first place. The film is pure cultural daydream, a traditional biopic only in the way that the director’s Romeo + Juliet was sober Shakespeare scholarship. Reality is bent and broken and soundtracked to anachronistic hip-hop. This is not your Elvis or my Elvis and certainly not your parents’ Elvis – it is Elvis in Baz-derland.

But even in Luhrmann’s alternate world, it feels crass to mine reality for easy emotional impact. Which is exactly what the filmmaker does with his depiction of the US civil rights movement. Although the movie focuses heavily on the debt that Elvis owes to Black culture – if this is, as the film boldly states early on, Elvis’s own superhero tale, then his origin story begins in the pews of a Black church – Luhrmann essentially commits the same exploitation, using the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the pains of segregation as easy emotional canon fodder for Elvis’s larger and, in the film’s view, more important journey. It is sad to see the director’s carefully calibrated chaos so easily slip into casual carelessness.

Elvis contains other, lesser cinematic sins – such as the underuse of Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla, and the overuse of dog (he had other songs, Baz!). But to ignore the film, or worse outright dismiss it, would be a mistake of Graceland-ian proportions. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is as powerful, passionate and problematic as the man himself. Don’t be afraid to get caught in its trap.

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