Ever the maximalist, Baz Luhrmann is one of the wildest filmmakers to ever grace the silver screen. His 90s masterpiece Romeo + Juliet took classic material that he heightened to ridiculous levels, while his adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was described to me as “Bioshock meets Jay-Z.” The guy always swings for the fences, missing with films like Australia and knocking it out of the park with the likes of Moulin Rouge. It makes sense that his ideal subject for a biopic is none other than one of the most maximalist artists of all time – Elvis Presley.
The film, told through the clouded recollections of Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks sporting an accent that sure is something), is a manic cacophony of horny energy and ludicrous colors. Following a rhinestone Warner Bros. logo is a crash, leaving the old codger gasping out his last while he dreams of stalking through an empty casino and recounting the story of his greatest triumph. Enter the flashback to meeting the young Mr. Presley (Austin Butler in what just might be a star-making performance) as he wiggles his hips to charm an army of women (and some young men) in a gymnasium. Everyone looks at the guy with lust and passion of all sorts, from the eventual orgasms of the screaming crowd to the dollar signs appearing in the eyes of the cartoonishly evil Parker. Thus begins the meteoric rise of the King of Rock and Roll, from Memphis to Las Vegas, and honestly…I get it.
Butler is a perfect match for the material, eating up the role without devolving into something akin to parody. There’s an earnestness to his performance, perhaps most obvious in his recreations of performances by the young star. With each swing of his hips, each shaking arm, and every toe on-point he sinks deeper into a sweaty miracle performance that’s intercut with actual live footage of the rock star. The switch between them pays off, authenticating Butler’s turn in the rhinestone lapels while giving us all a taste of the real deal. Butler is far too pretty for most leading roles, but he’s a perfect fit for Elvis Presley.
It’s a shame that this is going to be challenging for most people. Elvis is about half an hour too long and it knows it. The film plays like someone had been carrying a bowl full of a great film only to trip and spill it. All those great ingredients are still there, but they’re scattershot when splayed out before an audience that is, perhaps, expecting a traditional four-course meal. Luhrmann has crafted something completely insane in its brightly episodic nature, but the challenge for most viewers will be seeing if they can match the energy of the film and embrace it. You better know going in that the camera is never going to stop moving. You start off with one or two stationary shots and then we’re off to the races, including everything from comic book panels to a swirling shot of a boy in a revival tent and even several suiting-up montages that recall the opening to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin.
This is made even more difficult to do because of Luhrmann’s musical sensibilities. His hip-hop adoration melds well with Elvis’s beautiful gospel-style renditions of country music. The blend creates an eclectic soundtrack that features guest musicians blended with multiple styles of artists, from Doja Cat to Kacey Musgraves and even Jack White. It’s a pleasant melding of minds, but it creates another challenge for people that were expecting a more traditional film.
While I wound up enjoying this thing most won’t. It’ll play well with Luhrmann fans, devoted to the uniqueness of his films and longing for an era where film wasn’t so homogenized. On that level, this is an absolute triumph; wholly the product of a singular vision and making absolutely no compromises. Elvis lives like its subject – with no apologies, several mistakes, and a show that will take your breath away.
Elvis is currently in theatres