Synopsis: From his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, to his rise to stardom starting in Memphis, Tennessee and his conquering of Las Vegas, Nevada, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) became the first rock ‘n roll star and changed the world with his music.
The storied legacy of Elvis Presley receives the Baz Luhrmann treatment in Elvis. Fans of Luhrmann already know he is a writer and director embedded in arresting kineticism, reinventing iconic literature like Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby into vibrant portraits of his unique design. Some consider his aesthetics garish or meaningless, but I find his infusions of modernist verve to be a thoughtful presentation style for time-honored ideas.
The well-documented rise and fall of a musical era’s defining rockstar fits right inside Luhrman’s wheelhouse. With Elvis, the auteur focuses on the superstar’s ever-lasting mythos rather than a character-driven journey. Framed through the perspective of his sleazy manager Col Tom Parker, Elvis undergoes the meteoric highs and sobering lows of an artistic voice trapped inside the soulless cycle of commercial exploitation.
The end product is uniquely Luhrman in the best and worst sense. Roaring rockstar theatrics and ambitious thematic conceits take center stage in the writer/director’s latest – an enthralling albeit wildly inconsistent odyssey through Elvis’ trailblazing journey.
Stylistically, Luhrman operates right inside his comfort zone. Gyrating camera movements, intimate, sweat-dripped framing, and the aggressive splicing of cultural artifacts conjure an unhinged energy fitting of the star’s incendiary rise and fall. Luhrman also skillfully conveys the Elvis artistic renaissance through the lens of dynamic concert scenes. Equally evocative and vibrant, each concert embodies a rock star pulse while displaying the distinctive appeals of Elvis – a toe-tapping rockstar whose stylistic marriage of white and black musical sensibilities registered volatile reactions from the zeitgeist.
The musical phenom comes to life through Austin Butler’s star-making performance. It’s not just the thick Southern drawl and physical dedication that makes Butler such an enthralling force. Under his seamless physicality, Butler embodies Elvis’ transformation from a swaggering musician to a broken-down has-been. The actor conveys these juxtaposing states with naturalism and gravitas at every turn, heightening the film’s thesis as Elvis ultimately becomes a casualty of the Hollywood content machine.
Most have levied criticism against Elvis for the presence of Tom Hanks as the controlling Colonel Tom Parker. I wouldn’t say this is an excellent Hanks performance, but the actor effectively serves his purpose as the Dutch agent who suffocates Elvis under his oppressive control. Elvis operates at its best when placing the duo’s dysfunctional relationship under the microscope. Luhrman’s uncompromising depictions speak volumes about the battle between art and commerce, as well as generations of other artists who became imprisoned by the broken ecosystem (a nod to Brittany Spear’s Toxic is the kind of visceral, on-the-nose artistry Luhrman is beloved for).
Other elements of Luhrman’s ambitious vision falter by comparison. Luhrman and his team of writers (Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremey Doner) are cognizant of Elvis’ unique blend of white and black cultural influences. That said, the artist’s inspiration and the entertainment industry’s ultimate exploitation of black culture rarely receive proper nuance onscreen. A few generically-devised characters spouting clunky dialogue showcase a fairly half-hearted attempt at wrestling with one of the film’s more relevant ideals.
Like several of its biopic peers, the film also feels too clean in its celebratory depiction. Painting Elvis as a hapless victim of circumstance feels like a simplistic avenue for exploring the musician’s fascinating career. Troubling elements like Elvis’ underage marriage and his bizarre turn toward politics could have showcased some of the more damaging ramifications of his downward spiral. Instead, the final act drags to its inevitable conclusion while sprinkling in a heavy-handed helping of tributes (the nearly three-hour runtime is bloated and plodding at its worst moments).
Elvis’ execution ironically endures the same unevenness as its titular subject. Despite the inconsistencies, Luhrman extracts a vibrant portrait that will please Elvis fans and newcomers alike.