Cannes: Austin Butler gives a performance worthy of the king, but he’s buried alive under a rhinestone coaster of weak biopic tropes.
“It doesn’t matter if you do 10 stupid things as long as you do one smart thing,” advises Colonel Tom Parker at the very beginning of Baz Luhrmann’s completely insane musical biopic about the king of rock ‘n’ roll, but also a relationship of which forgive “Elvis” would still be around 370 “smartass” missing. If only this 159-minute eyesore – a sadistically monotonous supermontage in which a strange Flame manipulates a naïve young old man over and over again until they both become sad and die – were merciful enough to be so short in other respects as well .
Luhrmann is perhaps one of the most unruly maximalists cinema has ever known, and his new work is perhaps the most visually anarchic Hollywood film since the Wachowskis’ 2008 Speed Racer. But it’s heavy, even ironic to find pleasure in something so high; something far less interested in how its namesake breaks the rules than in how its director does it, and something relentlessly unable to find meaningful crossover between the two.
In fact, “Elvis” so adores his style and is so uninterested in his subject matter that “Baz” would have been a more appropriate title for it. Why does it take longer for an insanely simple musical biopic spinning at 60 million rpm through time to give Elvis Presley the “Bohemian Rhapsody” treatment when it took Luhrmann to complete “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Big One.” Gatsby” or to adapt the whole continent “Australia”? “? Because the “Moulin Rouge!” director — despite his apparent affection for Elvis and his honest efforts to worship the god of rock as he saw fit — can’t help but use Presley’s iconography in a similarly self-serving way as Parker exploited his talent.
Detached from the narrative guardrails of a Puccini opera, a Shakespearean tragedy or one of the most exciting novels of the 20th century, Luhrmann is free to remix Elvis’ life and times into a Las Vegas revue that brings the filmmaker’s unique genius to life Limelight moves and at the same time painfully allows his own addiction to excess. Even in homage, this maddening jukebox musical only sees Presley as a means to an end — a hip-shaking puppet on a string. Which perhaps explains why Luhrmann was forced to make Colonel Tom Parker the main character in his Elvis film “Elvis,” which the trailers had suggested was about someone named Elvis.
That may not be the stupidest of the stupid things “Elvis” does, but it’s the stupid thing that no amount of “smart” ones can match. Luhrmann loves himself as a narrator — a distance between opulence and tragedy — and theoretically there’s no reason why one of pop culture’s most important rise and fall stories couldn’t be told through the eyes of the Mephisto-esque Svengali who launched Presley into the air and left him there in a permanent state of dizziness.
Sure, on paper, that sounds about as appealing as a Britney Spears biopic narrated by her father. And sure, it’s even worse on screen. But it’s not impossible to see the appeal of putting an iconoclastic anti-authoritarian like Elvis in the shadow of the man who controlled him. Even the King bowed to someone, and Luhrmann’s dizzying screenplay (co-written by Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner, and Craig Pearce) frequently returns to the idea that Presley’s life was caught in the crossfire between two different Americas: one that’s heading toward Freedom turned and the other sniffs it out.
The problem with this is that Luhrmann’s Colonel Parker – Tom Hanks in a “true true” performance, defined by a bulky suit, a fake nose and an accent I can only describe as “Kentucky Fried Goldmember” – may be the most unbearable film is character ever conceived. The guy makes Jar-Jar Binks appear like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye. It’s as if Luhrmann saw Hanks’ performance from “The Ladykillers” and thought, “Okay, what if this, but times 100 and the whole thing for almost three hours?”
“Elvis” – and I wish I was joking about it – is presented as the dream Colonel Parker has before he dies. Sort of. Honestly, it’s hard to tell where you are or in what context during a movie that’s spinning like a roulette wheel (often overly literally) and only for a small handful of actual scenes slows down on the way. One second Colonel Parker is waddling around a Las Vegas hospital as an old man, and the next we’re in the middle of Nightmare Alley territory as the music impresario rolls through a seedy fairground while he’s singing a hot new song Listening to the radio in search of his next carnival freak.
Too bad black acts don’t sell. Wait a minute! [the camera zooms in on Parker’s neck sweat, spins 360 degrees, speed-ramps through several different frame rates, invents six entirely new aspect ratios, and then lands on the prosthetic nose that only skirts anti-Semitism because no one knows for sure if the Colonel was Jewish] “He’s whhhhyyyyyiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittteee!?” [cash registers, fireworks, time moves in 12 directions at once, you see the moment of your own birth and death unfolding on a Brian de Palma split-screen]. Cut to: Elvis performs “That’s All Right” in an oversized pink suit, while a concert for some local teenage girls suddenly becomes this scene from “Scanners.”
This won’t be the last time Luhrmann acknowledges his subject’s oft-discussed role in the history of American race relations — just wait until the frenzied sequence that frames the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as something Elvis happened to Presley personally. and made him very sad — but it’s safe to assume that “Elvis” is less interested in the cultural etymology of Presley’s music than in the way stiff strands of jet-black hair fall across Austin Butler’s face every time he talks sweetly into a microphone.
To be honest with Luhrmann, it’s quite a sight to behold. Butler’s flawless Presley impersonation would be the best thing about this film even if it stopped at the impersonation, but the actor does more than nail Presley’s singing voice and stage presence; He also manages to resist them, breaking free from the iconography and allowing the film to create a new emotional context for a man already frozen in time before the birth of Luhrmann’s target audience.
An opportunity that the director refuses at every turn. His Elvis will never be his own master. Instead, he evolves from an avatar for post-war America into a helpless addict trapped in a golden cage. In both modes he doesn’t have the slightest ability to act; Elvis jumps through the years, jumping from one superimposed newspaper headline to the next. Elvis comes across not so much as someone who changed the 20th century so much as someone who watched it swoon around him and then pushed him out. No wonder Elvis and Forrest Gump’s paths cross again and again.
Rather than finding a meaningful way to guide Elvis through the story, Luhrmann simply lets him float through the years on a raft of non-stop music that, at the speed of light, collides with an endless series of biopic clichés after the next, until it eventually capsizes several decades later. The action moves so fast and with so little weight that I literally missed Elvis’ mother’s death.
Then again, I’ve hardly ever seen her alive. I only tagged his father because Vernon is played by Luhrmann regular Richard Roxburgh, while Olivia DeJonge’s Priscilla jumps from army brat to seedy mother without stopping to end up anywhere in between. At one point they mention Graceland, so there’s probably a scene where they buy it? I’d suppose I’d have forgotten a detail like this in the blur of it all were it not for the fact that Elvis’ entire film career is squeezed into a single line of Colonel Parker’s narration, which I transcribed verbatim for my sins : “I made him the highest paid actor in Hollywood history, and we had a lot of fun.” Terrible food and such small portions.
The songs themselves can be exciting when grounded in reality – the late scene of a sequined Elvis making his way through “Suspicious Minds” is almost powerful enough to give the character his own soul – but the most of them come out of nowhere, floating randomly out of the ether like a broken jukebox. There is hardly a single moment in the film where Elvis actually creates anything; he’s just a sexy oracle taking music from the collective unconscious and hurling it through his body.
It’s as if Presley’s songs have always existed, and Luhrmann’s job is simply to make them new again. The filmmaker’s anachronistic flair has always been a fundamental part of his appeal, but here — rapping Doja Cat about “Viva Las Vegas,” which sounds pretty good — it’s hard not to suspect that his orgiastic exuberance stems from a lack of faith in the ability of a modern audience to connect with this topic. If Luhrmann trusted us to take care of Elvis Presley, his film would have found the confidence to try. Instead, Colonel Parker becomes the ultimate scapegoat; It’s okay that Elvis doesn’t have a recognizable identity because this is a movie about the cartoon chicken seller who stole it from him.
From the fish tank sequence in Romeo + Juliet to the elephant medley in Moulin Rouge! and that fantastical party sequence in The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann’s sensory overload has led to some of the most swooning moments in modern cinema, but the hyper-romantic energy of these films helped to intertwine the present with the past in a way that made them both seem more alive. “Elvis” discovers no such purpose. It finds so little reason for Presley’s life to be the stuff of a Baz Luhrmann film that the equation eventually reverses, leaving us with an Elvis Presley film about Baz Luhrmann. Both deserve better.
Elvis premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters on Friday June 24th.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/elvis-review-baz-luhrmann-1234728121/ Elvis Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Delirious Biopic is Bohemian Rhapsody Bad