Producers: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss Director: Baz Luhrmann Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Luke Bracey, Natasha Bassett, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Dacre Montgomery, Leon Ford, Kate Mulvany, Gareth Davies, Charles Grounds, Josh McConville, Adam Dunn, Yola, Alton Mason, Gary Clark Jr., Shonka Dukureh and Chaydon Jay Distributor: Warner Bros.
As one would expect, given its creator, less a conventional biographical movie than a flamboyant Baz Luhrmann fantasia on the rise and fall of Elvis Presley, an exercise in sensory overload that’s fascinating but exhausting. Told from the perspective of the rock icon’s long-time manager Col. Tom Parker, depicted as a combination of Svengali and Machiavelli, it embraces the device of the unreliable narrator, and its skittering treatment of fact and lackadaisical chronology will leave the casual viewer unclear about a lot of what’s happening; a preparatory reading of Presley’s Wikipedia entry would not be amiss.
What shines through the visual riot (production design by Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy, costumes by Martin and swooping cinematography by Mandy Walker) and whiplash editing (by Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond) are the lead performances, though the reaction to them will probably be quite varied.
Austin Butler, whose previous work has been largely in teen-centered TV series and movies (though he had a significant supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and won recognition for his turn in a recent Broadway revival of “The Iceman Cometh”), is very impressive as Presley—at least when Luhrmann’s frantic style, the over-busy cinematography and hectic editing doesn’t fragment his performance into tiny pieces. He captures the young Presley’s animal magnetism and charismatic stage presence exceptionally well, as well as the vulnerable side beneath the imperious manner of his later years.
A pity, therefore, that Luhrmann makes the ruinous decision to switch to archival footage of Presley in his final days of gross dissipation. One can understand the reluctance to use heavy makeup on Butler, especially since in his final appearance as Elvis as—so the script bluntly has him say—he’s approaching forty is physically unconvincing: he still looks like the young man Butler is. But the change to gritty images nearly half a century old is as destructive of the illusion the young actor was at such pains to create as was Hal Ashby’s disastrous decision to insert an outtake of Peter Sellers cracking up during the making of “Being There” back in 1979. It’s perhaps understandable, but indefensible.
And certainly the use of unconvincing makeup isn’t something Luhrmann is averse to, as it obvious from Hanks’s Colonel Parker. Complete with facial prosthetics and a fat suit (as well as an accent nearly as weird as the one Jeff Bridges used in “The Vanishing” back in 1993), the actor is transformed into a plastic grotesque. The effect in this case is strangely appropriate, since Parker is depicted as pretty much inhuman, and narrates while wandering through hallucinatory settings that meld past and present, but realistic it’s not. Overall the performance is likely to elicit wildly divergent reactions; some will see it as cartoonish and distracting, others as obsessively watchable despite (or because of) its utter artificiality. Some of us will appreciate it because in the last analysis it’s both.
The Presley-Parker relationship is at the center of “Elvis,” a pairing that plays out like an elongated scorpion-and-frog parable refashioned for the entertainment world. But there’s a second theme that’s just as important in the screenplay Luhrmann and his collaborators have crafted: the source of Elvis’ groundbreaking music in African-American culture. It’s begins with the flashbacks to his childhood when, as a boy (played by Chaydon Jay) he was obsessed both by the superheroics of Captain Marvel Jr. and the music of black saloon singers and religious revivalists.
That’s a standard emphasis of rock-and-rock history, of course, but Luhrmann plays it to the hilt with his emphatic use of split screens juxtaposing Presley with an African-American vocalist and his lingering over Elvis’ friendship with and admiration for B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), as well as extensive (and highly fictionalized) treatment of the political ramifications, featuring a campaign launched against him by segregationist Senator James Eastland (Nicholas Bell) and an overblown recreation of his appearance at Russwood Park in Memphis in 1956, which here results in his enlistment in the army at Parker’s urging. (Actually, of course, Presley didn’t enlist—he was drafted, to his displeasure, and then not until 1958.)
A similarly extravagant rewriting of the record comes in the film’s imaginative set-piece about the making of Presley’s “comeback” Christmas TV special in 1968. The drama that the film posits around the show’s creation is almost entirely made up, and to add further punch, the script inserts news about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, which actually occurred much earlier. One expects a degree of dramatic license in any studio biopic, of course—some of them have virtually no connection to the lives of their subjects—but it’s arguable that Luhrmann comes perilously close to the Oliver Stone “JFK” standard here.
Still, there’s no doubt that thanks especially to Butler, “Elvis” does convey the extraordinary impact Presley had on the pop culture of his time, along with his strangely codependent relationship with Parker and the sad deterioration his excesses brought about. And while Butler and Hanks dominate the film by a large margin, Luhrmann surrounds them with a cast attuned to his high-pitched style. Particularly notable are Richard Roxburgh as his father Vernon, who becomes Parker’s pawn as Presley’s business manager, Helen Thomson as Elvis’ high-string mother Gladys, and Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Wagner, who met Presley during his army service and became his loving, long-suffering wife until she could take no more. There are lots of supporting players who, like Harrison, do imitations of real folks, but among them David Wenham and Kodi Smit-McPhee stand out as country singer Hank Snow and his son Jimmie Rodgers, which whom Presley toured in the early days, the former stunned by Elvis’ stage moves and the latter entranced by them.
Presley’s music naturally plays a huge part in the movie, and though like the visuals it’s often presented in fragmentary form, it can’t help but have its impact (Anton Monsted was the music supervisor, and Elliott Wheeler provided the original background score.) And one of the places where the florid visual production is at its best is in the concert sequences, both the early ventures onstage and the later, far more elaborate Las Vegas extravaganzas; here Martin and Murphy’s production design, Murphy’s costumes and Villa and Redmond’s editing pay the greatest dividends. It’s in these scenes that Luhrmann’s razzmatazz feels fully in synch with Presley’s showmanship.
As long as you don’t take “Elvis” as gospel in every detail, it can be fun, sweeping you along on a tide of wild imagery and exhilarating music; and the lead performances are compelling—Butler’s for its depth and Hanks’s for its sheer audacity. But in the end it’s an exhibition of style over substance, and Luhrmann’s style is, as usual, too much of an over-the-top thing.