If director Baz Luhrmann is known for anything at this point, it is a tendency for spectacle. From colorful musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001) to gaudily dressed-up takes on the most grounded stories like The Great Gatsby (2013), Luhrmann has a talent for flash that borders on exaggeration. His most recent venture, a biopic of the one-and-only King of Rock’n’roll, is no different, betting entirely on wild editing, bold production design, and the shaking hips of its enrapturing lead (Austin Butler) to reimagine the myth of Elvis Presley.
Framed between near-mortem musings by Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker (a makeup beladen Tom Hanks), Elvis at times literally spins between a series of slightly chronological events detailing Presley’s humble beginnings as a poor southern boy to his cultural ascension and eventual decline. However, rather than portraying Elvis as a true rags-to-riches story, the film suggests that Elvis’ talent and celebrity simply were intrinsic instead of hard-earned — merely a product of fate. Even as it pays respects to his creative influences, most notably African American rhythm and blues, and the political consequences of his progressive artistic choices, the film explains Elvis’ road to mythic status as attributable only to the exploitative presence of Col. Parker and his machinations.
While the bling of rhinestones and the sheen of greased-up hair may seem like the perfect match for a director bent on visual maximization, the film’s stylistic choices sometimes verge on sensory overload. Scenes are so frequently interrupted by quick cuts or strange visual tricks that the viewer is often left with little or no indication of what a sequence means to Elvis, beyond furthering his career. Even as the songs he performs become more and more tied to his current emotional state or relevant challenges, we are rarely given time to let the significance of a moment, whether it be personal or historical, fully sink in before we are flung away to the next bullet point in his career timeline. The editing breaks in and blends time with panic-attack intensity, at times whisking one moment of melodrama with one moment of victory so thoroughly it is hard to appreciate either, even if the ride is beautifully shot and attentively crafted .
Butler truly gives an impressive performance, inhabiting a near-impossible role. While at times his southern drawl slips into an incomprehensible mumble, his on-stage performances are electric and committed. The film is too taken with Elvis’ mythos to be interested in his humanity, and as such approaches his story less as a three-dimensional human life and more as a Wikipedia summary. Hanks’ Col. Parker is of no help; the character is so straightforwardly predatory and the performance so strange that it is rare for any interaction between the two characters to be more than a clinical expression of their disagreements or desires. Though both actors are beyond competent, the script seems more interested in covering ground than in creating characters.
Ultimately, Luhrmann’s Elvis is notable for a truly unique visual and editorial style that at times does succeed in heightening the mythic nature of Elvis, and it’s hard to not respect Luhrmann’s commitment to his own auteurship, even if at times the focus on Elvis’ celebrity does little to leave the audience feeling inspired or as if they know Elvis any better than they might have before viewing the film. While most films in this genre spend time in the gritty details and intimate moments of its subject’s life, Elvis pauses only for big gulps of air between performances or political context. The lights are bright, the hair plumed, and the hips shaking, but all the visual spectacle and unique craft add up only to a vague characterization of Elvis Presley.