Return to sender: Elvis isn’t the biopic you want or deserve

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Elvis. // Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The constant complaint about music biopics is that very few break the mold. There’s always a trajectory of rise to fame, superstar success, drug problems and rock bottom, optionally followed by redemption. Think of Ray, or Coal Miner’s Daughter, or Walk the Line. Better yet, consider the 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which satirizes the entire genre so perfectly, it’s hard to even justify making another movie in that vein after it.

Baz Luhrmann’s 2.5-hour Elvis is at least a visual departure. Luhrmann uses his patented excess and cocaine bender-pacing to cram a ton of content into the running time. Luhrmann’s great at throwing everything at the wall in his movies, but none of that compensates for the fact that he’s never been a very creative filmmaker, just a loud one. This Elvis, despite some attempts to get the formula all shook up, provides as much commentary on its subject as most biopics do for theirs; that is to say, not much at all.

One of the stranger choices Luhrmann makes is handing narrative control of the story not to Elvis Presley himself, but his shady lifelong manager Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks in a trollish fat suit). Parker reflects on his experiences with Elvis, glomming onto him as a talented youngster, lashing out when his cash cow wanted to change creative direction, then trapping the singer into a Vegas residency that left him exhausted, depressed and addicted. Depending on whether you believe urban legends or certain (better) movies starring Bruce Campbell, the arrangement also hastened the King’s demise.

Fortunately, Hanks’ Parker doesn’t take up all of the screen, however much he might want to. Austin Butler’s Elvis appropriately gets most of the attention. Butler is well-cast and embodies the role with intense physical commitment. He’s fun to watch, even if it doesn’t seem like he’s putting his own stamp on the role.

However, with Hanks lurking around the edges and narrating the whole thing, the result is a movie about Elvis, featuring a creepy old con man who keeps spoiling everyone’s good time, but refuses to leave.

The other capital-c Choice is one Luhrmann’s made many times before, most notably with 2001’s cult-beloved Moulin Rouge!: musical mashup. When it comes to Elvis’ music, breaking down a song like “Shake, Rattle and Roll” into its component parts of Black gospel and blues is a worthy anthropological exercise. Luhrmann does this, though he doesn’t use the opportunity to interrogate the root questions of cultural appropriation. 

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Elvis. // Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

More often than not, Luhrmann tries to update the film’s music by incorporating modern pop and hip hop beats. In one scene, Elvis walks down Beale Street to a rap song. A later montage remixes “Hound Dog” with Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

The result isn’t bad per se, but Luhrmann refuses to let the source material speak for itself. Like an over-confident “hip” English teacher, Luhrmann wants to make Elvis and his world relevant, as if audiences who already purchased a ticket need further convincing that one of rock’s most enduring icons used to be cool and edgy.

Apart from a narrative misdirect and some unnecessary aesthetic gloss, Elvis is a pretty by-the-numbers biopic, with no real surprises. Some scenes, like Elvis’ big breakout at a state fair showcase, are so formulaic you could insert lines from Walk Hard without having to change them (take your pick of “the wrong kid died,” “you never once paid for drugs,” etc.).

Other moments have their dramatic tension undermined by the obviousness of their conclusion. Can Elvis pull off his ambitious 1968 comeback Christmas special, despite Parker’s protestations that he stick to the script and sing “Here Comes Santa Claus?”

You already know the answer.

By the end of Elvis, we don’t know any more about the man than we did going in, and what’s there about the origins of his music could be picked up on a tour of Graceland or Sun Studios (or, honestly, a quick Google). As per Luhrmann’s playbook, there’s plenty of flash present, but not enough substance to back it up.

It would be great to get a proper examination of Elvis the artist. What we get instead is a glammed-up recitation of the life of Elvis, the man. Save yourself the hours and the money, stay home and listen to “Guitar Man” on repeat instead.

Categories: Movies