In the 40-plus years since Elvis Presley’s death, his legend has become increasingly bigger than life. A star beyond stars. The very definition of celebrity. An ideal subject for the frenetic flash of director Baz Luhrmann, whose small portfolio of feature films kicks life into another gear, something bigger than “bigger than life.” Luhrmann’s Elvis has the vibrancy of Moulin Rouge, the speed of his Romeo + Juliet, the bombast and melodrama of The Great Gatsby. Most of Elvis is simply electrifying, an opus that shines when it’s in big-performance mode and stumbles when it’s not – seemingly, just like its main subject.
Luhrmann starts at the beginning – he’s one of four screenwriters here – with little-kid Elvis blending among Black families and culture in dirt-poor Mississippi. Luhrmann deftly overlaps the boy’s peek inside a blues joint and his epiphany inside a revival tent, two moments equally dangerous and outrageously exciting. According to flashbacks, they become the two greatest influences on Presley’s life. The push-and-pull between the devil’s music and the gospel truth is worked out so efficiently there’s even a makeshift walkway connecting the shack and the tent, which Elvis and his friends cross with glee.
Are we supposed to believe these two experiences lived on in Elvis’s mind? Of course. This is not a biography, but the fantasy that defines the legend, and it works for two reasons: The undeniably magnetic performance of star Austin Butler and Luhrmann’s boundless moviemaking energy.
Luhrmann is the ultimate showman in a film about showmanship. He favors big crane shots, split screens, postcard-style title graphics… the movie wiggles and shimmies like the guy from Tupelo himself. His script both embraces and eschews this kind of excess in the form of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manipulative, enigmatic handler, played by Tom Hanks with a strange, deliberate affect that kind of fits right in. Parker teaches Presley (and us) the art of the “Snowman,” the guy who swindles the public with a sideshow that leaves them happily emptying their pockets. Presley is his ultimate attraction, his quintessential golden goose.
Luhrmann uses Parker as a narrative tool and obvious source of conflict, but with frustrating inconsistency. Elvis opens with Parker’s take but doesn’t give us what could have been a satisfying bookend. Parker also provides the film’s voiceover, but that loses its usefulness with time and feels like an occasional storytelling crutch. I would have loved to know that Hanks’ Parker was recounting history from the great beyond, sharing his point of view and making up the rest, like any great showman.
Hanks is humorous as the villain, but Butler barely needs a foil. He is a model of unbridled commitment to the role, his performance full of honesty, a satisfying journey from naive dreamer to beaten-down has-been. Butler exemplifies swagger but without a phony braggadocio that an actor could bring to Elvis so naturally. Luhrmann lets Butler show us how Presley built and cultivated his confidence, and the energy is both charming and incredibly well-performed. There were times in Presley’s career where he repeated a dance move for the 10,000th time and you could see the tired repetition in his face – Butler adds a remarkable spark to those moments, a fleeting glimpse of excitement brought on by the muscle memory of what once was.
This is an easy movie to escape into. Baz Luhrmann recreates Tupelo, Beale Street, Graceland (in Australia, by the way) and the shimmering life of perhaps the star of all stars. At about 2 hours 40 minutes, Elvis zips by, appropriate for a movie about a guy whose life did the same.