In the drum up to Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic Elvis, the director (presumably under the guidance of Warner Brothers) has taken to TikTok. There, he posts heavily edited videos of his cast on the promotional tour for the film, alongside samples of contemporary remixes that feature his trademark anachronism. Among these is a song called “Vegas” by Doja Cat, an original track set over the Big Mama Thornton hit “Hound Dog.” In one of these TikTok videos, Luhrmann watches a dancer known as Fik Shun dance to “Vegas” (#WBPartner), the former mugging and posing on the left of the frame. “So many influences…” Luhrmann says, somewhat sagely, “but you’re making it your own.”
These nine words may as well sum up an ethos for Luhrmann, who first burst onto the scene with 1992’s (borderline minimalist, in retrospect) Strictly Ballroom, and whose films have only grown more extravagant, obvious, and bombastic ever since. There are high highs with Romeo + Juliet and low lows in his failed The Great Gatsby adaptation. After a whirl at Netflix with the short-lived (but apparently pretty good) The Get Down, Luhrmann finally returns to the big screen with Elvis, his first feature film in nine years, chronicling the movin’ and shakin’ of one of the biggest musical and cultural icons of all time.
I have a distinct memory of my mother once saying that watching Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! feels like being trapped in the elevator in the circus, and indeed, the first 15 minutes of Elvis evoke a similar effect. Admittedly, here is where I must disclose that, in an attempt to see the film early for the sake of this review, I saw Elvis in a theater experience that is commercially described as “ScreenX,” which I assumed was like the latest iteration of screen technology, akin to the “X” in “iPhone X.” It is not that. ScreenX, I quickly learned, is a three-wall, 270-degree, projected cinematic experience. Between the film surrounding me with its bedazzled logos, endless split-screens, and dizzying hall of mirrors on almost all sides, and the unstoppable sensation of an edible kicking in, there was a brief panic, a real “oh fuck, oh no, oh fuck, oh no,” as I settled in for Elvis’s runtime of two hours and 40 minutes.
But after its whirling prologue, in which the sweet doe-eyed punim of Elvis is hidden from us until he steps out onto the stage to perform “That’s All Right,” Elvis too settles in, revealing a much more humane and sensitive film than Luhrmann has made in some time. Elvis is a two-hander, which is why it stars two fairly famous actors among a cast primarily made up of somewhat famous Australians (The Power of the Dog’s Oscar-nominated Kodi Smit-McPhee appears for all of eight minutes). Austin Butler plays the titular Elvis; Tom Hanks is his leeching manager, Col. Tom Parker. The film is framed by the latter — who, despite playing a Dutch man, sounds like all of my German extended family rolled into one — in a tale of regret and misunderstanding, of brilliance and villainy.
Elvis works because Butler works. The film knows he is special, both preternaturally and cartoonishly beautiful. Butler, the chosen boy, who — despite existing on the periphery of Hollywood for at least a decade prior to Elvis — seemingly wandered out of nowhere into the Met Gala still doing the Elvis voice, the soft Southern purr and gentle snarl of the lip. In the accompanying press tour, Butler has gone long on his inability to shake the character after the COVID-interrupted production, and in watching him, it’s easy to see why. It’s not that Butler is a genius method actor (though time may tell), so much as the reality that the real Elvis Presley is so entrancing and otherworldly — “flung out of space,” to borrow Carol’s words from Carol. Talented, yes, but kind, too, and acting (mostly) in good faith. But beyond the singer’s merits, Butler understands that Elvis was tired. The actor shines not in the 20-something pretty-boy act, but as the older Elvis, the one of the ‘68 Comeback Special and the Las Vegas residencies.
Hanks, on the other hand… ay, ay, ay. Though Hanks maintains that Parker was often acting in Presley’s best interest, right or wrong, it is hard not to see this guy as fully monstrous, derailing and detracting both from Presley’s genius and Elvis’s more magical sequences. Parker recalls Jim Broadbent’s ribald turn as Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! — both characters embodying Luhrmann’s clear disdain for management, agents, money-grubbers and pimps. Broadbent, however, had a face full of clown makeup and the world’s greatest voice; Hanks has poor prosthetics and an accent best likened to that of an evil Nazi in a direct-to-streaming movie. His Parker returns, scene after scene, with a real “this fucking guy…” energy, sucking the life and spark and joy out of Presley and his family. There is certainly too much Parker for the movie, but then again, there was too much Parker in life, too. Indeed, every time Presley breaks out of Parker’s hold, even for a night, it feels like a small success.
Using Parker as Elvis’s (and Elvis’s) central antagonist allows the film to skate around other less pleasant aspects of the star’s life: the drug abuse, certainly, as well as the 10-year age gap between him and his wife Priscilla, whom he met when she was 14. As for the question of cultural appropriation, Elvis does its part to credit the Black musicians from whom Presley drew much of his inspiration; we are thankfully deprived of the hackneyed music biopic trope of a person coming up with a song out of thin air. But that’s about the extent of the film’s engagement with broader social issues — Luhrmann’s Elvis is about as political as regular Elvis, which is to say, not much. Though the trailer boasts Presley’s impassioned utterance of “It has everything to do with us,” in regards to the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the film omits any of his conservative leanings, as well as his visit with President Nixon.
But the job of a music biopic is not to Wikipedia-fy the life of a musician; rather, it is to briefly convince me that said musician is the most important person to have ever lived. There has to be an element of love. That’s not hard with Elvis, whom mainstream American culture has long idolized and merchandised to a point of almost-empty iconography. With Elvis, you don’t come away feeling like you know Elvis the man any better, but you do love him. He was hot and talented, silly and tender. He was profoundly optimistic.
And, like any worthy Luhrmann fare, the film shines in its musical sequences, the long stretch of Presley’s Vegas performances, especially. In Vegas, Presley was backed by not his usual handful of musicians, but a full orchestra. In Vegas, even as Presley’s body waned, his talent shone. Luhrmann has always been at his best when operating in a mode of optimism, whether the lens is trained on the ill-fated Shakespearean lovers of Romeo + Juliet or the doomed bohemians of Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann needs truth over deception, beauty in an ugly world, love above all. It’s a fantasy, but Luhrmann loves it, and more importantly, he loves Elvis Presley, who embodied that fantasy with starry-eyed wonder and awe.