Baz Luhrmann, whatever you might think of him and his movies, has at least one undeniable gift. Through his lens, he can take an already beautiful person and, for a moment, make them the most beautiful person in the entire world.
He does it when Leonardo DiCaprio is revealed as Jay Gatsby, when Hugh Jackman puts on a tuxedo in Australia, when Nicole Kidman descends from the ceiling singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Moulin Rouge!. Luhrmann lives for a grand entrance, the introduction of a beauty so powerful that the air gets sucked out of a room.
Luhrmann’s latest film, Elvis, is no different. When you see the titular rock star (a spectacular Austin Butler) turn his charisma on for the first time in a local auditorium, there is no air to be found. In a bag full of tricks, this is probably Luhrmann’s best one. He has never cared for things like “realism” or “grit.” His only two passions are beauty and love, both of which are in depressingly short supply at the movies these days.
The beats of nearly every Luhrmann film are remarkably similar. There are two people, they are yearning to be together despite outside forces telling them otherwise, and at least one of them ends up dead by the time the credits roll. In his first film, Strictly Ballroom, a dowdy amateur ballroom dancer named Fran tells a hotshot professional ballroom dancer named Scott that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived.” This would become the thesis of every Luhrmann film. He believes it so thoroughly that it is inscribed in the logo for his production company, Bazmark Productions. It would be corny if he wasn’t dead serious. Baz Luhrmann’s movies are indeed fearless.
That is not to say that they are all good. Australia is bloated, Strictly Ballroom serves better as a calling card than as an actual movie, and Elvis has what is quite possibly Tom Hanks’s worst (or at the very least most misguided) performance. But all of these films require a fearless maniac at their helm. A more timid director would have ended Australia at its first natural conclusion 90 minutes in, but Luhrmann pushes it another hour into an unwieldy historical epic about World War II and Australia’s Stolen Generations. Strictly Ballroom toes a very thin line between earnest reverence for its subject and self-effacing goofiness, and Elvis… well, let’s talk about Elvis.
Elvis is, in the truest sense of the word, astonishing. The fact that it exists at all is a marvel. Oddly, it is narrated by its antagonist, Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks) a Dutch con man who financially abused Elvis as his manager and held his career captive until the singer’s early death. Not only that, but it’s narrated by Parker as he is dying (?), so occasionally you see Hanks wandering around a casino in Parker’s mind palace wearing both a fat suit and old age makeup. The first time it happens, it is the closest thing to a jumpscare in any of Luhrmann’s films.
Is this what anyone would describe as “good?” No. The only explanation I have is that Hanks’s infamous case of COVID is the only one in medical history to have seeped into someone’s brain and caused it to start leaking out of their ears. But it is a big, huge swing, one that Hanks hasn’t taken since working with the Wachowskis, arguably the only other big-name directors whose hearts bleed as much as Luhrmann’s does.
When Hanks is not lurking around and being lecherous on screen — which by the grace of god does happen occasionally — Elvis is wonderful. It is full tilt Luhrmann, with big, invigorating musical numbers, over-the-top melodrama (you will not believe what that “It has everything to do with us” line from the trailer is in reference to), and, of course, love.
The love in Elvis is not between two people (although Olivia DeJonge is completely fine as Priscilla Presley), but between Elvis and the music. He needs it to live, even though the fame it has awarded him is slowly killing him. He’s depressed when he’s no longer singing the music that inspires him, and when he gets back to that he becomes so famous that he needs a constant cocktail of uppers and downers just to function. It is the most toxic relationship of any Luhrmann movie, and in Romeo + Juliet they both die.
In every case, what evens out Luhrmann’s penchant for spectacle is the acting. Past all the whipping around of the camera and the quick zooms and the canted angles is a phenomenal director of actors. Miraculously, each over-the-top, insane choice brings you closer to a character’s truth. Rewatch The Great Gatsby without all the noise about the anachronistic soundtrack or whatever it was that people didn’t like about it and you will find one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s most underrated performances.
Luhrmann is actually responsible for two of DiCaprio’s great performances, the other of course being in his fabulous adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. (Several Luhrmann players end up returning for a second movie, he must be fun to work with.) Plays and musicals that are brought to the screen often lack the kind of nerve required for success on a stage, but here is an adaptation that is so big it could only ever be a movie. Mercutio lip syncs in drag, Romeo kills Tybalt while approximately 100 rain machines are going, and their guns sound like swords when drawn. Amid all of that, the most stirring scene is still one of the film’s most simple. Romeo and Juliet see each other for the first time through a fish tank and, would you believe it, become the two most beautiful people in the world to both us and each other.
In Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann’s best film, there is zaniness and chaos. People are always screaming and the absinthe is always flowing, but right in the middle of it are Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, falling for each other despite a snobby Duke and a terminal case of tuberculosis getting in the way. We believe it, too, even when they’re singing a mashup of Kiss, U2, Joe Cocker, Jennifer Warnes, Whitney Houston, Elton John and David Bowie, and when Kidman is dressed as an “Indian courtesan.” That’s the fearlessness at work. The only way to make a project as ambitious as Moulin Rouge! succeed is by believing with your whole soul that love is the greatest force of all, and convincing your audience to feel the same way. What is believing in love if not being unafraid of disaster?
There is a whiff of disaster in Elvis. Perhaps you read David Ehrlich’s somewhat viral review of the film for IndieWire in which he called it a “maddening jukebox musical” that “finds so little reason for Presley’s life to be the stuff of a Baz Luhrmann movie that the equation ultimately inverts itself, leaving us with an Elvis Presley movie about Baz Luhrmann.”
Respectfully, I have to disagree. Sure, the movie is a gobsmacking 159 minutes long, and yes, it wantonly glides over some of the less savory bits of Elvis’s life (Priscilla being 14 when they met being the big one). But even if it were just “an Elvis Presley movie about Baz Luhrmann,” that movie would still probably be good. A movie about Baz Luhrmann is a movie about someone who, in a world of sexless, gray intellectual property cash grabs, actually cares about the spectacle of cinema. He is passionate about passion, and there are much more boring people you could make a movie about.
I hope Elvis makes a lot of money, enough that Luhrmann gets to keep doing his thing. True maximalism is scarce these days, and without him I fear we’d be completely without his specific brand of big, earnest storytelling.
If “A life lived in fear is a life half lived” holds the top spot on the list of Luhrmann mottos, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return” holds the second. This line is repeated throughout Moulin Rouge! as a kind of mantra. However, you could put it in any Luhrmann movie and it would make sense. Every five to 10 years, he emerges from his Anglo-Italianate-style Gramercy Park townhouse and begs us to feel. Many of us could use the reminder.