A film chronicling Elvis Presley’s rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace would have to be larger than life: a criteria that, amidst all of the Vegas performances and flashy outfits and emblematic rebellions littering Elvis’ prime, would be difficult for any filmmaker to properly meet. But after giving us a grandiose “The Great Gatsby” adaptation and an unforgettable modern “Romeo + Juliet,” director Baz Luhrmann seemed to be the man for the job. “Elvis,” rather than focusing on a specific lens or event in Elvis’ life, aims for a broad overview of the factors contributing to the ebb and flow of his popularity, as well as a more intimate look at the so-called “King of Rock and Roll.”
Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is undoubtedly a cinematic masterpiece — the camera juts combined with epic set design manages to emulate the raw excitement that seeing a performance by a man of Elvis’ stature would exude. Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa do a phenomenal job on the editing front, evoking the rapidity both of Elvis himself and of his rise to fame. However, where “Elvis” goes for filmmaking gold, it comes up merely gilded.
The film quite obviously posits post-war consumerism as the reason for Elvis’ downfall, personified in Elvis’ crooked manager and confidant, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker is played by Tom Hanks who, despite intense prosthetic additions and a borderline laughable Dutch accent, cannot manage to escape his ever-earnest demeanor. Hanks does make a valiant effort to encapsulate the evil and greed of his character, but the script gives him little to work with in order to become a dynamic or even intriguing character. With the majority of his assigned dialogue a regurgitation of a few management idioms, Parker’s pervading presence in the film ultimately feels like a failed attempt by Luhrmann to offer a catch-all scapegoat to not delve into the very real flaws of Elvis’ personal character.
Austin Butler does give an unforgettable performance as Elvis, capturing his impulsivity, magnetism and, ultimately, his docility quite well. While his heavier scenes might not pack the intended punch, with his long-awaited goodbye to Priscilla and reaction to his mother’s death falling a bit flat, Butler juggles both Elvis’ great ambition and talent with the passivity that allowed Colonel Tom Parker to exploit him almost flawlessly. Not to mention he gives a mean Elvis performance, the most striking scene being a depiction of the musician’s first show at The International Hotel.
In Luhrmann’s defense, the film is riddled with some undeniable high points. Elvis’ tweenage montage is exciting and powerful, and it pays some, though not nearly sufficient, lip service to the Black culture that served as his main inspiration. And Elvis’ final, tortured ballad succeeds enormously in humanizing and appreciating Elvis despite his character’s fall from grace. But even these standout moments fail to rescue the rest of “Elvis,” which, though it pushes a three hour runtime, ultimately says nothing at all.
Luhrmann could, with his directing of “Elvis,” be likened to the man himself — he embarks on a flashy, sometimes tacky but on-the-whole earnest effort to make something great. Yet Luhrmann’s decision to ground the story atop Colonel Tom Parker and skirt around Elvis’ darker side places him on the same plane as Parker himself, further exploiting Elvis’ life and work, this time at the expense of the people who he hurt.
For instance, Priscilla Presley, played by Olivia DeJonge, met a 24-year-old Elvis at age 14 and spent their marriage second to Elvis’ co-stars and fans, whom he regularly slept with. Though, in “Elvis,” her character is forced into the shadows of the film so that her story does not tarnish Elvis’ heroic reputation. African American talent is shown exclusively supporting and praising Elvis, creating the false notion that they appreciated his blatant burglary of their hard work. Elvis is presented as a boy who could never grow up quickly enough to defend himself, and while there certainly is truth to his exploitation by external, corrupt figures, he was by no means innocent himself.
Luhrmann offers the bare minimum in regards to critiquing or even just truly exploring Elvis’ mind. He instead does the very thing that he attempts to criticize in his film — creating a beautiful, dazzling facade that appeals to consumers and hides the pain and exploitation lurking beneath the story of Elvis. The film is nice to look at and listen to, but the intense sugar-coating of his character ends up a detriment to the truth behind the man, which is ultimately a more moving and powerful tale. What Luhrmann has given the audience is a self-indulgent highlight reel that will likely uphold Elvis’ posthumous ability to reap credit and praise off of the backs of others.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.