There’s undeniably something appealing about artists who cannot be anyone but themselves—especially filmmakers who bring 100 percent of their personality to every project, whether or not it needs that much. Baz Luhrmann is one of those artists, and he should have made him the perfect director for Elvis, the life story of Elvis Presley, a singular artist in his own right. Unfortunately, what audiences get from Luhrmann is simply excessive: his fast-cutting super-montage style overpowers the subject matter, and the result is an impressionistic, jumbled highlight real of Presley’s many accomplishments, despite vivid recreations by actor Austin Butler as The King.
That Luhrmann enlists Tom Hanks to play Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ calculating manager, is no doubt intended to showcase both the control Presley lacked in his career, and the irrepressible talent and charisma that transcended that control. But the director’s oppressive style, always angling for a blinding, speed-ramped depiction of events that are already interesting enough by themselves, sadly revisits that trauma upon the late star twofold—first by Parker on screen and then by the filmmaker as his would-be biographer.
Hanks, as Parker, narrates the film, which is at least as much his as it is Presley’s. A music promoter shepherding singer Hank Snow from one revue to another, he crosses paths with Elvis shortly after the release of “That’s All Right” on Sun Records and immediately sees the commercial potential—especially when the young singer causes eruptions of spontaneous excitement from an otherwise genteel crowd. For his part, Presley is simply harnessing the twin influences of rhythm & blues and gospel that he experienced while growing up in Memphis’ poorest, and blackest, neighborhoods. But Parker, seeing dollar signs in the young man’s hips, soon seduces the singer away from his Sun contract with the security of a house that would become Graceland, and the promise of a family business run by his well-meaning but feckless father Vernon ( Richard Roxburgh).
Presley’s half-Pentecostal/half-pornographic gyrations in a handful of television appearances soon land him in hot water with a white Moral Majority that fears his proximity—musical and otherwise—to the black artists that inspired him. Parker suggests that enlisting in the Army (even though IRL Elvis was drafted) will both appease his critics and perhaps work out some of the rebellious energy underpinning his mesmerizing charisma. While serving in Germany, Presley meets a serviceman’s daughter, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who later becomes his wife; after returning stateside, he transitions into film acting, an endeavor that leaches much of his fan base and, with each disposable project, diminishes his goal to become a serious actor “like James Dean.”
Returning to music with a television special in 1968, Presley rekindles his career and makes plans for a world tour. But when Parker’s gambling debts—and his mysterious past—threaten to catch up with him, the manager manipulates his star into settling for a years-long residency in Las Vegas, where drug abuse and the excesses of fame inevitably catch up to Elvis, threatening to undermine his legacy.
Luhrmann astutely observes that Presley’s career was a bellwether for America’s cultural and political changes between the 1950s and late ’60s, but he gives selective attention at best to what even a casual Elvis historian would call “pivotal” moments, from his first recordings to his reactions to the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It’s no new insight to observe that the filmmaker is terminally afraid of silence or stillness, but Luhrmann starts cannibalizing his subject’s life early with montage after montage—less in service of Presley’s perspective than that of Parker. And while it’s clear from the beginning that the manager is a slimeball, the film never adds new or meaningful dimensions to that portrait.
Despite Parker’s repeated efforts (on screen and one presumes in real life) to tame his client, one thing that Luhrmann captures effectively is how Presley simultaneously kickstarted the country’s sexual awakening, and came to embody it, via the black music—the “race records ”—from which the young man borrowed so liberally and lovingly. One hopes that there were at least a few young gay men as comfortably thirsty while watching Presley’s first major TV appearance back in the ’50s as the one depicted in the film. But what’s fascinating (and fun) to watch is the way that as a largely unknown quantity, especially among white audiences, Presley’s music and his movements chummed up feelings that few fans previously had outlets for and, consequently, were helpless to resist them, in part because they were unable to fully understand them.
As Elvis, Butler is pretty phenomenal; playing the singer from his teens to his final days, singing, dancing, (briefly) fattening up and everything in between, there are no cracks in his performance (I don’t know how many of the vocal performances were his, and don’ t especially care). If as an actor he exudes slightly more danger—at least by the standards of contemporary aesthetics—than the real Elvis, it feels like the right choice under a filmmaker incapable of subtlety. But in terms of the character’s depth and identity, Butler navigates a spider web-thin through line amongst Luhrmann’s noisy machinery.
More baffling—even catastrophic—is Hanks’ turn as Tom Parker, whose simmering Dutch roots were distantly identifiable in real life but are amplified here by an accent better suited for one of Austin Powers’ enemies. Notwithstanding the just plain bad choice to tell the story of one of the most iconic artists from the viewpoint of his scoundrel of a manager, Hanks maintains a consistent veneer of menace and untrustworthiness, down to his cryptic descriptions of Presley as the singer’s cultural stature grows throughout the film. One supposes that Hanks deserves credit for finally playing an outright villain for the first time in his career, but he plays Parker like such a fiend that it seems clear he was egged on, to his detriment, by Luhrmann’s campy excesses.
Luhrmann, who co-wrote, produced, and directed the film, revisits some of his earlier tricks from The Great Gatsby and red Mill to give Presley contemporary relevance, weaving a musical tapestry out of the singer’s hits and music from contemporary artists. But like everything else in the film, they’re mashed up to no meaningful effect, while he languishes too much effort by half recreating costumes, sets and locations from periods in his subject’s life. Somehow, Elvis’ Vegas stage show looks exactly rendered, but the director cannot convincingly stage scenes that take place at an airstrip or on a hilltop in Hollywood.
One imagines that for Luhrmann, such criticisms roll like water off the Brylcreem in young Elvis’ immaculately appointed pompadour—or maybe they’re beside the point for someone so entrenched in cartoonish theatricality. But when you feel like you know less about a subject after a film than before, that’s a bad thing. If one thing is clear from the story told here, it’s that the artist seldom (if ever) felt fully able to express himself and explore his creative ambitions on his own terms. Luhrmann was clearly able to do so—for himself, anyway—in attempting to tell Presley’s story. But as a coda to a career that probably can’t be contained in a film by anybody, much less this particular filmmaker, Elvis sadly reiterates the through line of his legacy: it’s another example of artists exploiting Presley in pursuit of their own greatness instead of honoring his.