Elvis Presley, infamous for his swinging hips, iconic for his swaggering style and raw sex appeal, heralded as the King of Rock and Roll, deserves better than Elvis.
Remarkably, Baz Luhrmann, the visionary behind such steamy and stupendous cinema as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, has translated the life of Presley, whose indulgences included sex, drugs, and decadent junk food, into a bloated and flaccid bore. Determined to frustrate audiences, this bizarre drama goes off the rails at its very first step.
Forget what you’d expect about a movie called Elvis. Forget what you might hope for from Baz Luhrmann. This movie is not a biopic about Elvis Presley, as it treats his life as a loose inspiration for a confounding exploration of a far darker (and far less adored or even famous) figure. Puzzlingly enough, the movie is not really a musical either.
Sure, Luhrmann features Elvis classics amid the flood of songs that slip through its soundscape, some covered by new artists for a fresh edge. However, there are few musical numbers in which audiences might relish the spell-binding spectacle that Luhrmann’s attachment might make you anticipate. Montages outnumber musical numbers, cutting the King’s signature moves and bold stage presence into glittering confetti, flashy but hard to hold on to. Even his most pivotal performances will be undermined by reaction shots to Elvis‘s baffling focus: Colonel Tom Parker.
Tom Hanks is insufferable as Elvis‘s unreliable narrator.
Lurhmann’s vision of Presley is filtered through the morphine-addled, ego-centric perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, the business manager who was later blamed for the King’s financial troubles, vices, and untimely demise. In a grating voiceover that Luhrmann slathers across the film’s duration, the Colonel declares he is not the villain the world sees him as. Truly, he insists, he was Elvis’s maker. Parker is our unwanted guide through Presley’s life, treating the man, the myth, the legend as if the King were Frankenstein’s Monster, in need of the counsel of his mad inventor to survive the cruel world that gawks at him.
Perhaps the casting of America’s Dad as this odious figure was meant to urge us into trusting the Colonel, much as a naive Elvis does. However, Hanks’s folksy charms are swallowed by a clumsy fat suit, prosthetic jowls, and a dizzyingly marble-mouthed accent. (The actual Colonel sounded nothing like what Hanks is doing here, making this bouncy collision of — let’s say Southern American and Dutch — all the more inexplicable.) Worse yet, Hanks plays the part as cartoonishly villainous, always lurking, lying, and leering. Beyond being an eyesore of performance, it makes Elvis seem an absolute rube.
Elvis infantilizes its hero to praise him.
Despite playing fast and very loose with the facts of Presley’s life and presenting his story through the self-serving eyes of a con man, Elvis falls into the biopic pitfall of fawning over its hero. To the Colonel, Elvis is a benevolent bumpkin who loved his mama, his young wife, his Memphis Mafia buddies, and every single one of his fans. Bolstering this image, the Colonel — or more accurately Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce — brush past the most problematic elements of Presley’s life. For instance, the twentysomething musician’s courtship of a 14-year-old Priscilla is treated as inexplicably wholesome, even as lustful fangirls batter at his bedroom window in a jealous frenzy.
Also, Presley’s whitewashing of Black culture — through his music, moves, and fashion sense — is gussied up as sincere adoration. Again and again, jubilant footage of Black people living their lives gives way to a close-up of a wide-eyed Elvis taking it all in, as if it’s his for the taking. Kelvin Harrison Jr. makes the most of a minor role as B.B. King, a blues legend who is presented here as a guide for Elvis, explaining privilege and its power. Meanwhile, Yola, Shonka Dukureh, and Alton Mason get less screentime, playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Little Richard respectively. Yet each brings such power and sensuality to their performances that they make this Elvis seem tame.
Austin Butler gets the voice, but not the soul or sex appeal of Elvis Presley.
As Elvis, Austin Butler does a superb impression of that signature voice and a capable job of imitating the physicality that set millions of fans’ hearts aflame. He’s a handsome man who looks terrific in, say, a pink suit and lace mesh shirt, but there’s something missing that keeps him from fully realizing the scorching hotness of Elvis the Pelvis. A wildness is absent. Even in his most polished movies, Presley had this air of carnality and thereby danger. Even when he was singing Christmas songs, that sexy snarl of his lips had listeners lusting.
Essentially, Butler’s Elvis is too clean-cut to feel true to the persona of Presley. But perhaps that’s Luhrmann’s intention. In that endless lecturing voiceover, the Colonel is constantly regarding Elvis as a glossy golden goose, smoothing over the rougher bits that make him harder to sell. Perhaps Luhrmann is doing this too, trying to make the sensual sensationalism of Elvis seem quaint by today’s standards. (As if hip-shaking from music idols still doesn’t drive people every kind of wild.)
Elvis isn’t a musical or a proper biopic — so, what is it?
At two hours and 39 minutes, Elvis is an exhausting visit with an unreliable narrator whose version of history sanitizes and effectively neuters one of the most intriguing rags-to-riches rock ‘n roll stories of all time. While the music of Presley plays throughout, priming audiences for exhilaration, Elvis never delivers the sort of satisfying spectacle we’ve come to expect from a Luhrmann vehicle. At best, what we get is scattershot, instead of “Come What May.”
There are moments of excellence, like Yola, Dukureh, and Mason’s kinetic musical performances. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who recently awed critics for his performance in the subtle thriller The Power of the Dog, is refreshing fun as a beanpole country singer who comes alive under Elvis’s free-swinging influence. The soundtrack rocks with tracks like Dukureh’s rendition of “Hound Dog,” segueing into Doja Cat’s “Vegas.” And though Elvis is too often inundated with busy split-screens, disembodied expositional dialogue, and montages that treat big moments like chores to be gotten through, Luhrmann does occasionally slow down for a simple visual pleasure, like the shot of a family praying in a back alley lit by resplendent moonglow. In these moments, there is glory and grace, but they feel too few and far between.
Elvis is a case where more is less.
Luhrmann is loved for his too-muchness and his bold musical choices, much as Presley was. So, this should have been a match made in Graceland. However, Luhrmann’s Elvis is not interested in the man behind the legend. He is fascinated by how the Colonel could have conned the King, over and over for years. He is too in awe of Presley and his legacy to muddy it with complexity. Swept up in the glint of the leather and the bejeweled jumpsuits, Luhrmann overlooks the messy human who hid underneath. And so, he misses out on the heart that could have made his film truly spectacular.
Elvis is now in theaters.