Elvis (2022)

BAZ LUHRMANN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5

Australia/USA, 2022. Warner Bros., Bazmark Films, Roadshow Entertainment, The Jackal Group, Whalerock Industries. Story by Baz Luhrmann, Jeremy Doner, Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner. Cinematography by Mandy Walker. Produced by Gail Berman, Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Patrick McCormick, Schuyler Weiss. Music by Elliott Wheeler. Production Design by Catherine Martin, Karen Murphy. Costume Design by Catherine Martin. Film Editing by Jonathan Redmond, Matt Villa.

There isn’t any place or period in the world that Baz Luhrmann can’t turn into the carnivalesque, diamond-encrusted fantasy land that exists perpetually in his mind, his fever dreams spraying out on the screen almost as if the celluloid has been placed in a blender. Following his attempt to create a Gone With the Wind for the southern hemisphere and a splashy version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, Luhrmann now takes us to the American south in the fifties, where a carnival promoter of mysterious origin (he says West Virginia but he sounds like Dr. Strangelove) spots an up and coming singer that he knows can turn into a star.

Later to be known simply as “The Colonel”, Tom Parker (actually born Andreas van Kuijk in the Netherlands) is amazed not just by Elvis Presley’s talent on stage but by the effect the singer has on his audience: swinging those soon to be legendary hips as he delivers a song, Elvis releases pent-up, frustrated, puberty-inducing hormonal rage in his female audience and, being a master at knowing how to sell a sideshow extravagance to his audience, the Colonel decides that this will be his big break into show business.

Having the character of the Colonel narrate this film is meant to give us an ironic perspective on the origin story of Presley’s stardom, informing us that while history may say that the King of Rock and Roll’s quick decline and early death (at 42, of drug overdose in August of 1977) was the result of their doomed business relationship, the reality, according to the narrator, is that the love between Elvis and his audience is what really did him in. Unfortunately, Luhrmann is so busy putting on a dazzling show that he forgets to actually provide any substantive evidence to back up this thesis.

Not long after their meeting, the Colonel and Elvis become the Snowman and the Showman, with the former (played under ridiculous prosthesis and surprisingly little insight by Tom Hanks) taking the latter (Austin Butler) to the top of his field: early career troubles include the controversies of Elvis The Pelvis nearly getting thrown in jail while firing up the resentments of the pro-segregation South, which the Colonel solves by encouraging the singer to serve time in the Army and cementing his image as a Good Ole’ American Boy (something that Parker himself was in pursuit of ever since immigrating illegally to the country after the war, also something that Luhrmann forgets to actually investigate).

The Colonel turns Elvis into a corporation and makes sure that he has every possible lavish indulgence that can come to the nouveau riche and famous, but he also binds him to commitments that the singer can’t get out of and, when Elvis tries, he finds himself tethered to a ruthless and selfish individual who is squeezing his cash cow for all he’s worth. By the late sixties, the King begins to grow tired of the childish stylings that his manager wants of him and pushes back in order to keep up with the times; having grown up in a predominantly black neighbourhood means that Elvis was not in favour of segregation either socially or politically and, when the Colonel wants him to film innocuous Christmas television specials for children, Elvis reacts with a desire to speak to the issues of the day (particularly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy). Thinking he has moved into a new phase of self-sufficiency after taking control of the legendary 1968 television special that is very effectively recreated here, Elvis only digs himself into a deeper hole with the Colonel, who bites back by placing his charge into the entombment of his Las Vegas International Hotel gig that would take up the last years of his life, and would come to define the kitschy side of the legacy he would leave behind.

It’s hard to know exactly what aspect of the man or myth Luhrmann is hoping to either uncover or focus on, it’s a film that enjoys much more stylistic freedom than any other Elvis biopic before it but goes nowhere near unveiling anything interesting thematically. Having it told from the Colonel’s point of view hardly comes near making for an Amadeus for the modern era thanks to the fact that we never get to know Elvis as anything other than a two-dimensional tragic figure, he’s simply a victim and never a fully fleshed human being who makes unfortunate choices while in an unfortunate circumstance. The Colonel isn’t a complex figure that you admire in spite of yourself either, he’s obnoxious and selfish and it’s obvious to everyone including Elvis that he’ll always win by any means, so watching the star be helpless in his trap is hardly compelling, dramatically, as there isn’t a complex push and pull between these two men, nor is there the tragedy of a possible friendship ruined by the vulnerability of selfish desires (Luhrmann also manages to not remake Becket). Instead of giving us any actually worthwhile commentary on either character, Luhrman simply replaces substance with the nonsensical decision to put touches of anachronistic music on the soundtrack (including modern remixes of classic Elvis tracks), something that came across as cool and creative in Moulin Rouge but here just seems desperate to connect with a younger audience.

It’s a simple movie that doesn’t know it, taking up almost three hours as if it’s a much more complex one, plus is yet another example of a filmmaker who seems to have no idea that Australia, where it was primarily shot, simply cannot effectively stand in for any part of the United States (see Ridge, Hacksaw).

What it does have going for it, though, is a starmaking performance by Butler, who does some incredibly impressive Elvising throughout the picture, delivering magnificent vocals and particularly doing well at the physical aspect of the character: Elvis didn’t swing those hips for attention or as a stunt, he actually couldn’t help but feel the music in his entire body, and Butler recreates the thunderbolt energy of his stage performances with astonishing technical perfection and artistic grace.

Ultimately, though, the story this film is trying to tell, about a man who was undone by a passionate connection to his audience that made him vulnerable to the manipulations of a Svengali-like mentor, is not pulled off in any meaningful way. There’s no doubt that this magnificent talent had more to give than just musical notes and pretty blue eyes, but it was exploitation of others and his own compromised will that killed him, and Luhrmann trying to turn him into his own romantic myth is utter nonsense.

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