Baz Luhrmann has directed six feature films over the course of his career to date. Of the previous five, the only one I really enjoyed was Romeo + Juliet, mostly because it was a novel concept at the time to put a modern spin on Shakespeare, blending the dialogue with a 20th Century backdrop. It made Leonardo DiCaprio an A-lister for life, introduced the world to Claire Danes (at least the ones who never saw My So-Called Life), and gave us a performance from John Leguizamo that is to this day unequaled.
After that though? There hasn’t really been anything that worked for me. Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby was an empty affair, Australia had no appeal outside its own borders, and Moulin Rouge! remains near the top of my list of the most overrated films of all time. I still contend that if Kurt Cobain ever got to hear what Luhrmann did to his music, he’d blow his brains out all over again. And yes, I know he only used about eight seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but that was 10 seconds too many, and it’s more than enough to justify my macabre assertion.
The problem with Luhrmann’s films is that they’re all – good and bad – about style over substance. As long as it looks flashy, and therefore lodges itself into your consciousness and memory, the mission has been accomplished, even if you only remember it with disdain. As such, the movies become much more about Luhrmann than whatever the ostensible subject is.
In that respect, there were two burning questions I had going into his latest project, Elvis, a biopic about the most iconic performer in rock and roll history. One, could Elvis Presley’s larger-than-life persona and history work within Luhrmann’s spectacle framework? And two, could Luhrmann get out of his own way and give us a coherent movie without all the bells and whistles, or in spite of them?
On the first front, the answer is a resounding yes, thanks to a wonderful breakout performance that embodied the legend and spirit of The King, even if it plays a bit fast and loose with the historical record. On the other point, let’s just say that a leopard can’t change its spots.
The very first creative choice of the film is a curious one, setting an uncomfortable tone for everything that follows, as Luhrmann decides to frame the entire film not from Elvis’ perspective, but from that of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s predatory, usurious manager. The film begins with a fake-out of what appears to be Elvis collapsing backstage (a moment the film returns to late in the proceedings) before shifting it to Parker suffering a heart attack in 1997 – 20 years after Presley’s death – and giving what amounts to a deathbed confession in an imaginary casino (Parker had a well-publicized gambling addiction), where he contends that he’s not responsible for Elvis’ collapse and demise, but rather he should be celebrated for creating him in the first place.
I’ll admit that there’s a degree of intrigue in having the villain narrate the story and try to spin it in their favor, especially one where we all know how bad of a character they were in real life. But something gets lost in the transfer here, as the story feels less like a stream of consciousness and more like a rambling anecdote from Abraham Simpson.
It also doesn’t help that this is the rare instance where Tom Hanks gives a subpar performance. As Col. Parker, he’s not so much a cunning manipulator as he is a simpering wart who just happens to know how to take advantage of a situation when all logic would say he shouldn’t. Rather than being the self-professed master of the “snow job” that he says he is, Hanks plays Parker as an inept Palpatine, and Elvis has to conveniently be as gullible as Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker at the appropriate moment in order for any of it to work. Hanks’ performance here isn’t as bad as Cloud Atlas or The Ladykillers, but it’s pretty damn close. He’s done no favors by a fat suit and prosthetic design that makes DiCaprio’s version of J. Edgar Hoover look like a master class in makeup, and for some reason he affects one of the strangest accents I’ve ever heard. This is because Parker was actually an illegal Dutch immigrant (the film treats this like some huge reveal, even though anyone who knows about Elvis is well aware of this fact), so Luhrmann has Hanks use this odd combination voice that combines Dutch and Kentucky in a way that makes him sound like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes by way of Foghorn Leghorn.
Maybe this was intentional, as Parker serves as a distraction throughout much of the film’s runtime, but since he’s the one telling the story, perhaps it makes an odd sort of sense. Whenever things threaten to become too sympathetic to Presley’s tragedy, Parker is there to bring it back to himself. Or rather, maybe it made sense in Luhrmann’s head. In the finished product, however, it’s just unpleasant, and I do not envy the poor dialect coach that will surely catch some mockery for this job.
But of course, the real story is that of Elvis Presley, played here by Austin Butler. He comes into this project about as far as you can get from a household name, with the bulk of his credits to date coming from sitcoms on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel (he also had a small role in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood). But just like DiCaprio and Danes before him, this is a star-making role, and it’s an opportunity he does not let slip by.
Butler is absolutely electric in the title role. However we may come to judge this film from a directorial and story standpoint, Butler takes every moment he has in this movie and plays it like he’ll never get another chance, fully committed for both Elvis’ sake and his own as an actor. He embodies Elvis in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible, portraying the earnestness of the artist with an existential urgency that radiates in every scene. When I saw him on that screen, I did not see a young actor getting his chance at the big time. I saw Elvis Fucking Presley, the same one I’ve seen over and over in footage for the bulk of my life. And just for good measure, much of the early songs actually feature Butler singing instead of Presley, showing just how well he can match the voice.
The film does gloss over some of Presley’s lesser moments, including whitewashing his relationship to black music to a certain extent and only using his drug addictions as a plot point rather than an opportunity for character development. But in the moments that truly matter, Butler is essentially given the spotlight and told to shine. And shine he does. Honestly, there are only three parts of Presley’s career that I wish had gotten more attention, mostly so I could see how much versatility Butler could have further lent to the role: One, Elvis’ gospel music (I am not a religious man, but his version of “Peace in the Valley” is one of my all-time favorite songs); two, the Jordanaires; and three, for lack of better term, Fat Elvis.
For the first and third parts, we get some hints and allusions, but nothing truly concrete. This is because, as ever, Baz Luhrmann prioritizes spectacle above all else. There are a few moments where this works really well, particularly an early sequence contrasting a young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) spying on blues musician Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr., the vanguard of blues rock; if you don’t know his stuff, stop reading this review RIGHT NOW and go listen to the last decade of his output) and attending a gospel revival as a sort of alchemical basis for his artistry. We also get some tremendous moments where he first performs “That’s All Right” for a live audience, or when he gets into a zone choreographing his first Las Vegas show.
But apart from that, the entire film is a maelstrom of miniature scenes and vignettes edited together into one feature-length montage. The important moments of character feel more like brief respites than anything else, temporary breaks in the whirlwind of images being cross-cut against each other with no sense of logic. As a former full-time professional editor, this was especially jarring for me. It was like Luhrmann sat his editor down in front of a brand new deck and just said, “See all those buttons and effects? Use them all!” Seriously, the only thing missing was a star wipe. If there was a point to it, it might have worked, but it’s completely nonsensical and without any real direction or focus. It’s just showing off what the system can do, and I can watch a YouTube demo for that.
Because of this, it feels like a chore trying to keep up with everything going on. The supporting cast, including great talents like Helen Thomson, Kodi Smit-McPhee, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Richard Roxburgh, and Olivia DeJonge all feel like glorified window dressings. I understand that this is a showcase piece for Elvis and Austin Butler, but when I can’t make heads or tails of who anyone else is because we’re just jumping to the next bit with a whole bunch of spinning images, split screens, and flashing text fonts, you’re going too far. When we finally did get a scene that ran longer than two minutes, I found myself too busy catching my breath to be able to pay attention and engage with the story.
Bringing things further down is the fact that, in true Luhrmann fashion, the entire soundtrack has to be some sort of remix. We couldn’t just let Elvis’ music be, nor could we trust in the quality of the brilliant black music he was able to commercialize for better or worse to sell the moment. No, we have to have Kacey Musgraves singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” or last year’s Eurovision winners, Måneskin, covering “If I Can Dream.” Even worse, for no reason whatsoever, we get a background track of Doja Cat sampling Elvis for an insipid rap called “Vegas.” Oh yeah, because Elvis would have totally been down for that. It has no relevance to anything, as it plays over a shot of Presley walking down the street. There’s non-diegetic music, and then there’s this nonsense. At least Eminem and Cee Lo Green’s number is held until the credits.
This goes back to the core problem with Luhrmann’s work. Even in a film like this, where you have a star in the making like Austin Butler taking on the herculean task of bringing Elvis Presley back to life 50 years after his death, Luhrmann essentially has to make the movie all about him. Can we just tell a story? NO, YOU MUST SEE HOW CLEVER I AM WITH THE EDITING SOFTWARE! Can we listen to some great Elvis music? NO, YOU MUST HAVE THE DOJA CAT! Can you show us how much of a shit Col. Parker was, taking advantage of a singular talent? NO, HE MUST BE A LIVING CARTOON! Can we have a tiny bit of meta fun at the idea of Tom Hanks working with Elvis Presley, when in Forrest Gump the younger version of Hanks’ character got to do the same thing? NO, YOU MUST WORSHIP ME! Can you do anything but show off? NO, I CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T! OH NO, I CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T! CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T! CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T! CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T!
There’s a brilliant movie hidden along the margins of this jumbled mess. Elvis’ life story is beyond compelling, but telling it requires a level of nuance that Baz Luhrmann is utterly allergic to. Austin Butler does a truly tremendous job, making up for a LOT of this film’s shortcomings. He almost single-handedly makes this not only watchable but enjoyable. It’s ironic that Luhrmann basically made this movie as one giant montage, because a much shorter run-through of all the important scenes outside of that madness makes for a much more compelling presentation.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Does Luhrmann’s sense of style work for you? Seriously, how bad is Tom Hanks’ accent? Let me know!