Elvis Lives

Baz Luhrmann’s overheated biopic gloriously resurrects The King

Baz Luhrmann’s groaningly bejeweled Elvis is an overheated razzle-dazzle excavation of a rock dinosaur. It’s the conjuring of a cultural hurricane from a bygone era which aims to shake up a digital generation that couldn’t care less about hound dogs or blue suede shoes. His more-is-more biopic doubles as a civics lesson in American transgression, a fawning tribute to a bona fide trailblazer who broke segregation boundaries, warped gender stereotypes, and blended musical influences into a nonstop purée of gold-certified records. The man behind the superstar gets lost in all the adulation, but this fawning film makes a persuasive case that his influence is still unimpeachable.

ELVIS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxbourgh, Olivia DeJonge
Running time: 159 mins

It’s been nearly a half century since Elvis Aaron Presley fell off his toilet and dropped dead of a heart attack at age 42 from hard living, pill-popping, morbid obesity and bad health. And since then, the King’s place in the popular imagination has vacillated between sober homage and posthumous ridicule, settling into a post-parody slow fade that still radiates a penumbra of eccentricity. His legacy is a heady back catalogue of foundational music along with a cringey slew of forgettable movies, all overshadowed by his rhinestone-crusted jumpsuits and unofficial status as the patron saint of Las Vegas.

Presley’s embrace of bold musical choices swaddled in gaudy iconography has already spurred multiple movie and TV biopics that riff on real events as well as fantastical situations. All the more fitting that Luhrmann, a melodramatist magpie who revels in retelling over-familiar tales of regalia-drenched emotional excess, would be attracted to his story. Who else if not the remixer of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and The Great Gatsby?

Luhrmann’s point of entry: Elvis’ Svengali manager Col. Tom Parker (a subterranean Tom Hanks buried deep beneath a fat suit and bizarre Dutch accent). The director cites his love for the Oscar-winning film Amadeus as a major influence: Parker the carnival barker sees the divine hand in Presley, and so begins his two-decade relationship playing Salieri to this mid-century Mozart, feeling both envious and enthralled. “I can’t emphasize how strange he looked,” recalled Parker when he first saw the skinny boy in pink clothes and a sheer black shirt (Austin Butler, a revelation). And he knew in an instant that the greasy-haired, pompadoured singer with girlie makeup represented forbidden fruit for teenagers everywhere. “He was the greatest carnival attraction I’d ever seen.” Which, of course, meant that he was Parker’s cash cow.

Cue the obligatory chronological events: his Memphis childhood growing up dirt-poor in a black neighborhood, his love of gospel music in the local church, his brief recording career at Sun Records, his RCA superstardom and life at Graceland. Then his controversially lewd show at Russwood Park, followed by the clean-cut All-American two-year military service overseas in Germany, romance with his future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), the generic Hollywood hits that push him to irrelevance, and a 1968 comeback special on NBC.  If I’m galloping through these moments, it’s because the movie does, too, with a hopped-up editing style from a filmmaker who privileges sumptuous, adrenaline-fueled image overload above all else.

We never really get to know Elvis as he traipses through the milestones, bonding with Little Richard and B.B. King over their distinctive rhythm and blues, then aping their attitudes and musicality until they were integral to his own. “I can’t move, I can’t sing,” he complains to Parker, crediting his pelvic thrusts and toe-tipping poses for unleashing his God-given talents. Expect platitudes like Sun Records owner Sam Phillips saying “The world needs to hear you sing, Elvis!” Or this zinger about freshly-assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.: “He always spoke the truth,” says Elvis, clearly rattled into banality.

The Vegas years are where Elvis gets to show some tenderness and vulnerability, as Parker handcuffs him into a five-year, mega-million residency—the first of its kind—at the International Hotel. Loaded down with gambling debts, Parker even negotiates an unlimited casino credit line for himself while his golden goose aptly belts out “Suspicious Minds.” It’s one of the few moments where Butler’s astounding mimicry of Elvis becomes truly humanizing, an exploited innocent who Parker has worked like a mule, pilfering him out of as much as 50% of his earnings. So Elvis bloats and drifts, losing Priscilla, losing focus, losing everything but his own passion for performance. And then the film ends in a hazy, bittersweet montage that intercuts Butler with the real Elvis, as they deliver a truly heart-swelling rendition of “Unchained Melody.”

As with most Elvis projects, the saving grace of Luhrmann’s frantic shiny, jumbo-sized bauble is the music. From rockabilly wonder “That’s All Right, Mama” to plucky ballad “Heartbreak Hotel,” from jaunty rouser “A Little Less Conversation” to protest anthem “If I Can Dream,” the singer’s swooning intoxication hits hard. His life will always be messy, and maybe his movies will be, too. But his recordings will always stand too tall to topple.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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