Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis' Is All Sequins, No Soul

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

An actor playing Elvis Presley sings into a microphone as audience members reach out to touch him
Austin Butler as Elvis in 'Elvis,' co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Any review of Elvis—the groaning, glitzy smorgasbord opening June 24, co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann, the Australian filmmaker whose credo since Strictly Ballroom (1992) is “nothing succeeds like excess”—must begin by acknowledging that Elvis Presley is a sequin-encrusted figment of our mythmaking machinery.

That is, everybody thinks they know Elvis’s story and, consequently, everybody thinks they know Elvis. He is immortal. But the realm of immortality is assuredly not the world of reality.

The same could be said of any number of pop-culture touchstones. Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ. Princess Diana and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lesser icons Jimi, Janis and Jim, as well as Jerry and Kurt, all have bungalows adjacent to the main house. Each has been masticated, milked and massaged to the point where it’s nearly impossible for any movie to offer a fresh perspective or a new insight. A film can only engage in dialogue with the myth, and either repeat, rehash or reject it (and who’s that brave or foolhardy?).

A still from the film 'Elvis,' featuring a woman and three men, including Tom Hanks as Elvis's manager, dressed in 1950s attire.
Left to right: Austin Butler as Elvis, Helen Thomson as Gladys, Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Richard Roxburgh as Vernon in Warner Bros. Pictures’ 'Elvis.' (Hugh Stewart)

Luhrmann’s preposterous entry point is appointing Elvis’s manager and manipulator, Col. Tom Parker, as omniscient narrator. This calculating, ruthless parasite is the last person on Earth through whose eyes we want to see Elvis Presley. The character’s odiousness isn’t remotely mitigated by the casting of All-World good guy Tom Hanks, who plays the Colonel as a cross between Lyndon B. Johnson and the Penguin (another cigar-waving Warner Bros. villain) with a grotesque Mittel European accent.

The film’s conceit is that Parker was a huckster, a carnival-sideshow booster, a conman with an eye for talent and the knowhow to pick American pockets. Presley was Parker’s ticket from the big top to the big time, his unwitting puppet: a singular yet unformed talent, innocent yet sexy, ambitious yet devoted to his mother, a white admirer (and assimilator) of Memphis blues and gospel with more charisma than Brando or Dean.

A Black woman portraying gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in a new film sings into a 1950s-style microphone
Singer Yola in 'Elvis' as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer who heavily influenced Elvis Presley. (Kane Skennar)

Luhrmann presents this garish, sordid chunk of 1950s Americana in a rapid-fire, almost assaultive series of flamboyant set pieces. When he grants us a reprieve from the barrage by way of heart-to-heart conversations—Parker and Elvis atop an amusement park Ferris wheel, Elvis and his mama in her bedroom—the dialogue is so cloying and the performances so blatantly caricaturistic that we yearn for the blender to start up again.

Sponsored

Elvis would like us to see Elvis as a tragic figure, a pure talent with idealistic motives demoralized, derailed and defeated by the big, bad wolf of commercialism, as embodied by Parker. The truth is far more complicated, which is perhaps the most obvious and superfluous thing I can say about Elvis. Heck, you knew that the moment you first heard that an Elvis movie was coming down the pike.

An actor portraying Elvis Presley stares pensively out a limousine window while wearing sunglasses, as the window reflects neon lights outside.
Austin Butler as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ 'Elvis.' (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Then there's the insult of an Australian filmmaker shooting this quintessentially American story entirely Down Under, with a mostly Australian crew and cast, and peddling it to us as valid or authentic (or as authentic as a black velvet painting). On the other hand, the American star doesn't help matters: you could fill Kezar Stadium with Elvis impersonators who have better chops, sharper moves and more innate charisma than Austin Butler.

But the film's greatest sin is presenting Elvis Presley as a triumph of performance and showmanship. His singing, especially in the 1950s, was an act of personal expression and, more often than not, a work of art. (Have you listened to Mystery Train lately?) Luhrmann has no appreciation for the music, for Elvis’s instrument or, ultimately, for the artist’s soul.

I’m saddened by the idea that someone, somewhere, will come out of Elvis asserting a greater understanding of Presley the artist. The inspiration, the interior process, the instinct, the creativity, the practice—at best, we get a couple fleeting moments of movie shorthand. Elvis purports to want to probe beneath the surface, but Luhrmann is too impatient and too addicted to spectacle. The movie nods at Elvis’s artistic frustration in the ’60s, and his isolation, loneliness and sense of unfulfilled potential—his midlife crisis—in the ’70s, but they are merely feints.

Elvis is (yawn) about the price of fame, which in this telling Parker collected and Elvis paid. It’s about the relentless selling of a commodity to a fickle yet always insatiable American public. A winking, nodding homage to the only U.S. industry that will never be outsourced, Elvis embodies a more contemptuous view of the marks on the carnival midway—er, at the multiplex—than any expressed by even the most cynical film critic.