Elvis Movie Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Sweaty, Seductive Biopic Makes The King Cool Again

D: Baz Luhrman. Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Shonka Dukureh. 12A, 160 minutes.

If we drew back the curtain on Elvis Presley, what would we even want to see? A soul bereft of accomplishment? Something cold and real behind the kitsch? I’m not sure. America’s pop icons aren’t just shiny distractions. They are a culture that speaks to itself and constantly questions its own ideals and desires. I don’t think it’s necessarily more important who Elvis was than what Elvis represents. And while you won’t find too much truth in Baz Luhrmann’s dramatization of his life from cradle to grave, the Australian filmmaker has delivered something far more compelling: an American fairy tale.

“I’m the man who gave the world Elvis Presley,” says Colonel Tom Parker of Tom Hanks, his manager, as the curtain (literally) rises on Luhrmann’s sprawling, rhinestone-studded epic. “And yet there are some that would make me the villain of this story,” he adds.

Parker, who saw early promise in Elvis’ politically radical mix of country and R’n’B, cunningly positioned himself as the sole overseer of the star’s creative enterprise – the man who landed him a record deal with RCA Records, who owns his merchandising Deals secured and TV appearances that navigated him through a fairly short but rich acting career. But Parker took far more in return. In 1980, a judge ruled that he had defrauded the Presley estate of millions. Some even accuse him of marginalizing an overworked Elvis and ultimately contributing to his death.

For Luhrmann, the fairytale parallels could not be more obvious. Parker is the evil stepmother, Elvis (played here by former child star Austin Butler) is the princess imprisoned in her tower – if that tower is indeed the huge and gilded stage of his Las Vegas residence. When Parker, a former carnival performer, first seduces Elvis into becoming his client, it happens literally in a hall of mirrors. It may sound a little absurd, but Luhrmann’s roots in the Australian opera scene have given him a compelling (if divisive for some) ability to deliver baroque styles with a genuine, romantic sensibility.

I have always firmly believed in the purpose and necessity of Luhrmann’s outlandish visions – that simply capturing grotesque consumption is not enough The Great Gatsby‘s Jazz Age, but to prove that we, the audience, would be as weak to its charms as Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Nick Carraway. The same is true here for the way his subject is both seduced and betrayed by his own fame. And anyway, Luhrmann always shot his films a bit like Elvis – sweaty and kinetic when the camera pans through the corridors of Graceland and through decades of his life with the fury of a thousand karate kicks.

elvis will and should invite serious discussion about the musician’s stellar legacy, and the film’s weakest points largely speak to how unresolved the debate surrounding him remains. There’s certainly a lot to be said for how edgy the film gyrates around his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who was 14 when they first met. Can a film speak for a woman who is still alive and can tell her own story? And how do we get into the big debate about Elvis’ larger role in music history? Was its success really another chapter in the long history of white America’s cultural appropriation, or did this early, rebellious appeal actually prove a surprisingly powerful tool in the fight against segregation?

Austin Butler in Elvis

(Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.)

Luhrmann’s film offers arguably the most plausible, romantic Elvis ideal, even as it turns him into a kind of naïve who’s caught under Parker’s spell. He is always referred to as “the boy” and never “the man” in Parker’s narrative. He’s the sweet, blue-eyed mama’s boy who just wants to buy his family a Cadillac and play the music of his childhood, spent in the mostly black communities of Mississippi. Even at the height of Elvis’ fame, the film keeps bringing us back to the black artists who inspired him, either through the musician’s own words (and he was always deferential to his origins to the end) or through Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond’s frantic editing. When singer-songwriter Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) begins her rendition of “Hound Dog,” a voice on the radio commands us to listen — this is the voice of Black America speaking.

Framing Elvis’ story with Parker’s, Luhrmann’s film is deftly able to step back from the intimate details of the musician’s life. Instead, it sees him as a nuclear warhead of sensuality and cool, someone at the crossroads of a bitter culture clash. Parker believes he can turn him into a clean, quintessentially American, middle-class white boy by forcing him to accept the call-up, cut his hair, and go to war. Elvis resists, and his gyrating pelvis (captured in many glorious zooms to the crotch) is helping to encourage the burgeoning sexual independence of young women across the country. “She has feelings that she wasn’t sure she should enjoy,” Parker notes as the camera watches a wide-eyed fan. Costume designer Catherine Martin – Luhrmann’s wife, who is also known as co-production designer and producer – dresses Elvis in a range of soft, dreamy shades of pink for a sublime effect.

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To say that elvis Not so much about the real Elvis might sound like it takes the pressure off of Butler’s performance. But that would be a totally unfair assessment of what is achieved here – an incarnation of one of the most impersonated people on the planet that is at times uncanny without ever coming across as parody. Sure, Butler nailed the looks, the voice, the stance, and the jiggling, but what’s really impressive is that indescribable, undistillable essence of Elvis-ness — magnetic and gentle and wild, all at the same time.

It’s almost odd to see a performance so consuming that Hanks – the Tom Hanks – feels like an accessory. He’s all but buried under layers of prosthetics and a pantomime Dutch accent, seemingly cast just so America’s dad’s warm grin could have a few people wondering if he really is the villain of it all. Butler makes a compelling case for Elvis’ power at a time when the musician may have lost some of his cultural prestige. Same with Luhrman. So does the soundtrack, which is packed with contemporary artists (Doja Cat’s “Vegas” wrote the sound of summer everywhere). And while not everyone will be convinced by their efforts, I know I’m ready for Elvis to get cool again.

“Elvis” hits theaters on June 24th

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/elvis-review-movie-austin-butler-b2087479.html Elvis Movie Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Sweaty, Seductive Biopic Makes The King Cool Again

JOE HERNANDEZ

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