Elvis may have left the building, but Baz Luhrmann brings him back for the ultimate encore performance
Like The King himself, Elvis (2022) is a dazzling, daring, delightfully over the top slice of rock’n’roll history. But like Elvis, the blistering source material is ultimately mismanaged and overstays its welcome with a flabby denouement that – almost – overshadows its early brilliance.
Quintessentially Baz Luhrmann- more Moulin Rouge than straight rock biopic a la Bohemian Rhapsody– the almost three-hour long film takes audiences on a greatest hits tour through the life of Elvis Aaron Presley, whose humble upbringing in a poor, mostly black neighbourhood sowed the seeds of music superstardom.
Though an undoubted talent in his own right, Presley was famed for appropriating the Black music and culture he experienced growing up on Memphis’s Beale Street for a mainstream audience in segregation-era America- “A white boy with Black moves,” as it’s put.
For young Elvis, it was the sound and style he grew up with; the sound and style of music that made him happy. But producers saw nothing but dollar signs with each strut of leather-clad hips. And that’s where our story gets messy.
Using the performer’s signature dance move as a symbol of cultural divide and social change, entire montages are dedicated to the “Elvis the Pelvis” (a real-life nickname bestowed by outraged press of the time) phenomenon. Still somehow provocative even by today’s standards, the camera lingers on star Austin Butler’s (playing Elvis) every twitch and twist as he violently thrusts his groin towards the hordes of screaming female fans below the stage. It’s hardly subtle. But who expects subtlety from a Baz Luhrmann movie? Or for that matter, an Elvis show?
The danger with both is in the fine line between spectacular and tacky- a line which Elvis unfortunately crosses several times. In an unusual move, the film is told through the narration of Elvis’s long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker as he lies on his deathbed in a Las Vegas hospital.
Played by legendary nice guy Tom Hanks doing his best impression of a Hollywood sleazeball meets crooked carny through layers of prosthetics and a truly baffling accent, Parker is portrayed as cartoonishly evil which undercuts the story’s tension and nuance.
Literally rubbing his hands together with glee as he signs away Elvis’s future to the merchandising overlords, the character is as cliched and one dimensional as they come despite being based on a real person.
Happily, the same can’t be said for Elvis himself. Sure, Elvis is not quite a comprehensive character study (the editing is too choppy and fast-paced for real emotional depth). But a perfectly cast Austin Butler manages to capture the spirit and genuineness of Elvis Presley, the man and the showman, without straying into caricature. His Elvis has the sideburns, the gravel voice, and the trademark quiff. But he also has heart.
The film similarly steers away from late era “fat Elvis” clichés and is respectful of its subject without being overly reverent. Yes, there is a scene in which Elvis shoots his television. But thankfully Luhrmann spares us from fat-suited up, giant sandwich eating montages- or worse, a Romeo + Juliet style dramatic death scene on the toilet.
At the height of his career, Elvis Presley achieved almost superhuman levels of success and adoration. Yet at his core he still dreamed of more. And while desire to keep going- to sell more, earn more, be more, for his family and for his fans- was his personal and professional downfall (it’s hard to grow creatively when you’re barricaded inside a Las Vegas penthouse between gigs), it came from a place of joy.
This visually spectacular, inventively crafted old school Hollywood fable doesn’t know quite when to quit either. But in its own imperfect fashion, it rediscovers the joy of Elvis.
Read More: Elvis Ending Explained
Verdict - 8/10