Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner, and Baz Luhrmann
There are many dangers pertaining to the biographical picture, but one of the chief perils for a biopic of a famous artist is to turn it into a real fans-only hagiography. This might be true especially for a biopic of a beloved musician, whose catalog (and the almost inevitable rise-and-fall-and-rise arc) gives you an opportunity to still make a basically entertaining movie even if you never had any particular reason to do the biopic in the first place. You don't even have to go too far back for an example of this: I mean, what is Rocketman actually about again, besides Elton John music videos that only occasionally link up with the narrative (or even their own lyrics), interspersed with assurances that Elton John eventually overcame the more bluntly sad elements of his life? And you can go way back if you want: John Carpenter's work-for-hire TV biography of Elvis Presley, also titled Elvis, runs aground on every biopic problem, and spends almost three hours barely managing to convey that the recently-deceased King of Rock and Roll ever even hit a snag in his career; nevertheless, it had and still has a constituency.
Baz Luhrmann clearly perceived the danger of turning his own nearly-three-hour biopic of Elvis Presley into a shrine to the King, yet, because he is Baz Luhrmann, he determined not to avoid this danger but to run full-tilt at the danger, embracing it so intently that the movie he wound up with is barely a "biopic" anymore at all. If it isn't necessarily the best Baz Luhrmann movie as a result, it might be the most. If you just gasped, rightly so. But for the record, it's still great Luhrmann, even if this needs to be qualified with my disclosure that, for my money (and Australia notwithstanding), he's barely ever made anything else.
In any case, given a choice between biography and an epic rendition of the legend of Elvis Presley—assuming this could be "a choice" for this filmmaker—Luhrmann turned, with his whole heart, towards the legend. I don't know if this was always the idea—the credits list the director as a co-writer not merely twice but three times (twice for script, once for story), which means what we have is resting atop the foundations of an original screenplay that Luhrmann had a hand in, but evidently ultimately rejected. But at least the grind paid off. It's not a seamless script—that final and top layer of screenplay seems to start shearing off over the course of the last half, and if that's not an accurate read on the textual history of the Elvis screenplay, well, I wouldn't be the first to notice that something is coming loose—but even if the purpose of the film seems to get muddled along the way, the energy of this Elvis, the sheer ritual passion of it, lasts every one of its 159 minutes, from its very first moments to the well-chosen rug-pull of the final frames, which suddenly replace our Elvis, not-a-star-but-will-be Austin Butler, with archival footage of one of Presley's own late-career performances.
It's a weird way to begin a review, at the film's ending, but this is one of the strongest gestures Luhrmann ever makes, revealing that he has, after a fashion, fooled us—for even in Elvis's longeurs Butler has remained a chic and attractive addict, never remotely as almost-dead as the real Presley was in 1972. Yet even the real Presley in 1972, for all the bloat and all the wear and tear on his voice, retained a magical presence that outlasted his body's ability to support it, and that violent, sudden shift demands we recognize what we lost. Theoretically, the temptation is to compare it to Carpenter's Elvis, since that's otherwise the most prominent screen biography of Presley (that's surprising, but it does seem to be the case). There's not much overlap, however: besides the fundamental basis for both Butler and Kurt Russell's performances being impersonation, and Butler blowing Russell's doors off on that count and others (for instance, Butler does all or most of his own singing), it's actually remarkably difficult to even think of them as movies on the same subject.
Luhrmann's film likewise begins at the ending: Elvis Presley is dead, and our guide for this tour of his life is one of his life's constants, not in a good way, this being "Colonel" Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), or even more aptly rendered "Colonel" "Tom" "Parker," given Presley's manager's own biography. The Colonel narrates to us what amounts to a superhero origin story, and that's less an interpolation than it is a literal description—somehow it never connected with me till now that Presley's more flamboyant stage costumes in the 60s and 70s were a riff on the iconography of his own favorite superhero, Captain Marvel Jr., presented here in flashes of limited animation as our Elvis's magical totem. (The Captain Marvel lightning bolt emblem is even part of the gaudy gold-and-rhinestone title card design that Luhrmann commissioned for his extremely gaudy gold-and-rhinestone film.) This origin is an absolute whirlwind of untethered cross-cutting amongst even weirder moves (like the aforementioned homage to the Fawcett superhero), so that I cannot at this remove be certain where the film actually "starts"; but, chronologically at least, we begin in Elvis's childhood in a black neighborhood where he finds his other major mystical influence in evangelical tent preaching and the laying of hands, and especially the gospel music that attends it, so there's a shot here of the young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) that is mirrored later with Butler, whereupon he's gripped by some indescribable force—he looks, in fact, like the onset of a seizure is seconds away—as he stares up into the light.
This origin lasts a very long time, basically a full act of a long film, and it is an enormous, world-beating montage; the centerpiece of it is the Colonel's very first encounter with Elvis, the latter's face obscured by framing or shadow or focus or the brevity of a shot until he appears on stage to perform, and here is it revealed that this superhero's superpower is giving people the ability to question their society, or, if we're being reductive, and there's no reason why we shouldn't because Luhrmann is, his superpower is the ability to make people just terrifyingly horny. Thus his legend begins, and the reactionaries come out against him. Yet his truest nemesis would also claim to be his creator, and the Colonel attaches himself to Elvis as his parasitic manager, ultimately driving Elvis's career into the ground for the sake of his own conservatism and venality, not to mention his gambling debts, till finally each man dies, both in Vegas, though I suppose Elvis only began to die in Vegas. The movie is impressionistic enough to mistake that, and it assumes you're familiar enough with the broad strokes that it doesn't need to dwell on how he ate it on a toilet in Memphis.
And that's the story, though Luhrmann is less interested in the literal "Elvis, a great musician, was sabotaged by his manager and died too young" tale than he is the possibilities of "Elvis, a world-historical force heralding the fulfillment of American idealism, if not the actual-factual Millennium, was degraded, co-opted, and eventually destroyed by What America Is Really About." And that is what that sprawling origin story is getting at, in its massively overedited, massively Luhrmannesque, just-plain-massive way, screaming across decades for the benefit of an audience seven decades down the line, and while basically every bit of Elvis is like every other bit of Elvis to some degree, some bits are more emblematic than others, almost always and maybe uniformly always in its use of Elvis's (and others') music. I don't think there's a single misplaced cue here, and the bigger performances are all amazing pieces of jagged-edged cinema even if I don't necessarily adore the particular song, while Luhrmann and his collaborators are playful and imaginative in their creation of a deliriously multifaceted musical landscape that isn't bound to something as mere as time, bringing together contemporary and anachronistic future sounds in counterpoise, gluing together the unhinged sprawl of a story that's about a phenomenon rather than a person, and only at length even pretends to be linear. (That opening act is basically pure cinema, not in a "it's so cool" sense, but in that it's so profoundly a work of affective editing. I don't think two scenes adjoin one another chronologically until at least the thirty minute mark, many of them are intercut, and most of the non-musical "scenes" are only, like, a minute long.)
It's very headlong and extravagantly Luhrmanny, though when it comes to the set-piece performances, it's not as choppy as that implies or that Luhrmann's other musical, Moulin Rogue!, suggests (the songs are often permitted room to breathe, though they're overpowering enough you still probably won't get the chance). It rests a tremendous amount of its narrative on two songs in particular, which are bent into motifs for the score, and become full-blown structural elements as a result: "I Can't Help Falling In Love" and "Suspicious Minds" Obvious and unsubtle (I assume I don't even need to describe what they're motifs for), but that's Luhrmann, and the latter is featured in the longest set-piece, a baleful but impotent accusation from Elvis towards his manager that keeps hammering on the last bars of the song but, you know, can't walk out. Of course it does help that these are my favorite Elvis songs ("Falling In Love" is the kind of song that could reverse a break-up), and here Luhrmann taps into my preexisting interest in compulsively listening to the same songs over and over again for hours. You might appreciate this less.
It does what 2022 demands of it, and what Presley probably would appreciate being done on his behalf, acknowledging his debt to black artists of his time, engaging sincerely with the issue yet accomplishing the surprising (in 2022) feat of never just stopping the movie to be its own commentary track—the closest it ever gets is B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) inserting a fair socioeconomic observation about Little Richard's (Alton Mason's) market power vis-a-vis Elvis, and it's literally just one line, and the main thing here is the Little Richard song. Even if it were as simple as "just putting their music in the movie too," emphasizing Elvis's influences and how Black America was more responsible for his creation than Colonel Parker ever was, that would be something. It's infinitely more, and that first act, maybe the whole first half, is concerned with the curation of a larger-than-life myth of Elvis, as a one-man revolution, the first punk who stumbled into something more than just superstardom, standing on the cusp of something transformative. I don't know if the movie ever tops the spectacle of its first number with Elvis himself, but I don't know if it needs to. It sounds like a joke if you describe it. It sort-of is a joke, where Elvis's sheer animal presence conjures something involuntary and lurid in the feminine half of his audience; the way Luhrmann edits it, it's like Elvis tears something out of them with psychic powers, triggering unbidden screams that become full-throated shrieks, and basically orgasms, and it's fantastic, like Elvis has shredded the last vestiges of purity culture with one swing of his hips and it was Presley who gave us the 1960s.
Which is one way Butler is so important; to my non-expert eye, he's more attractive than Presley was. He's certainly prettier in his features and stylings in this film's "this is a period piece but we are well-aware that it is actually 2022" way, and if I say he's like a sculpture made out of sweat, I mean that as a compliment, Lurhmann capturing him so that every single movement and expression he makes works to underline that he's the very avatar of a desperate yet mighty and irresistible horniness, even after Presley "should" be getting older and fatter and frankly a little deranged. Butler is terrific at a lot of things here—this is a film About Greatness, and Butler understands the tragedy of that, on more than just the one level, that eventually if you keep living you Stop Being Great, and he comprehends that his Elvis was never As Great As He Could Have Been—but, maybe like Presley himself, the way he looks and moves and sounds, and how that embodies the ideas his film conveys, is the key. This is what it looks like when a god wiggles his pinky. (One learns of the other, more established actors who were considered, and it feels like we dodged a whole revolver's worth of bullets: none of them could have done this except, maybe, Harry Styles, who is at least objectively a contemporary form of panty-melt, but Styles still would've been worse and still would not have looked like the high-end porno version of the actual Presley.) And from here, Luhrmann glides to other things, making them all aspects of the same thing: his Elvis is sexual liberator, living bridge between white and black, generational champion against the powers that be. Elvis marks time with the string of assassinations that shook society and set liberalism back throughout the 60s, but it's not just to mark time, but to add its Elvis to that list.
And by now Luhrmann's pulled back, for that's only what Elvis could have been, if he had not been betrayed and adulterated into something he wasn't, thrown into the Army and rewarded with his dream of Hollywood stardom as an actor, only to have that turn out to be little more than mugging his way through some of the most trifling musical comedies imaginable. (While my viewing is by no means exhaustive, I still like Presley's trifling musical comedies, and hence this should annoy me. Yet even the snide dismissal of them here winds up being funny and pointed: I have tried to avoid "look at this particular thing" in this review because Elvis is almost three hours of "particular things," but among Luhrmann's impressive choices is a shitty rear-projection of a beach-movie Elvis on waterskis, but instead of the ocean behind him, it's political death.) But is Elvis sexual freedom? The Colonel can bottle and sell that, watered-down. Is Elvis racial harmony? The Colonel can turn his loving homage into appropriation. Is Elvis Jesus? Well, he probably is.
And the Colonel will test him in the desert and he'll fail—or else Elvis asked that the cup be taken, and the Colonel listened—and that brings us to Hanks, who is some kind of inhuman creature here, rather than a character, starting with an accent that is like an interdimensional being's attempt to impersonate a Southerner (if any human speech has ever sounded like Hanks's "dialect" in Elvis, then it would be Hungarian by way of Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula) and it goes from there. It's surely one stark contrast with Butler's sex angel performance, every one of Hanks's movements and expressions registering an almost nauseating sliminess, but it's also a great performance, and rare, too; we almost never get to see Hanks doing such sloppy camp. It's as huge and all-consuming a performance as Butler's, though, and scaled to fit the huge and all-consuming size of Lurhmann's film. The carnival trappings, the fake accent, the leering wickedness—maybe even the meta resonance of Hanks playing an observer to this zeitgeist once before—it all adds up to make Hanks the perfect Satan of the mid-century.
There is a possible downside here: you start to get the distinct feeling that Luhrmann would almost have preferred that Elvis Presley was even more like Jesus, if you get my meaning, and pretty much as soon as we pass into Presley's post-Army career it becomes, inch-by-inch, a comparatively more standard biopic. Only comparatively: the style never lets up. But the concerns of the film shift decisively towards the much smaller matter of Elvis's musical career, not in terms of what that career represents but just how Elvis wants to keep it. Butler manages these shifts towards the human and the intimate (Hanks, for his part, has no need to change what he's doing, "evil music manager" being pretty much the devil anyhow), and in fact my favorite moments occur in this second half; there's a real "meaning of loss" thing going on, that is all the more keenly-felt because of how overwhelming the mythmaking of the first half has been. But the film has changed, and it never quite finds a coherent throughline between "Elvis, Messiah" and "Elvis, Dipshit." (I've been praising Butler unreservedly, so it bears mentioning that if the actual nuts-and-bolts psychological question "why is Elvis like this?" is never fully answered, maybe that's an impenetrable mystery, and at least Butler acts like he knows.)
To some degree, I think Luhrmann intends for that absence of reconciliation to be the point; or, if he doesn't intend it (and, with enormous respect, nothing he's ever made suggests that kind of intellectual game would be intentional), it still works by accident. Elvis had his moment, when anything and everything was possible, and it was stolen from him, or he squandered it, or both, and we've just been living in the sad aftermath; and bear in mind that Elvis is, you know, a metaphor. I should, probably, register this as a flaw in such a grandiose design, but it takes every bit of critical "objectivity" (no such thing) for me to do so, and it feels wrong to try, like I'm not giving it the credit that both its distinct phases, and perhaps both those phases working together, deserve.