Baz Luhrmann’s latest film “Elvis” is extremely excessive and incredibly superficial. Like many of his previous works such as “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), and “The Great Gatsby” (2013), the movie is full of Luhrmann’s own dizzy stylish touches throughout its 159-minute running time, and there are a number of truly electrifying musical moments to be appreciated, but the movie somehow ends up being curiously distant to its legendary real-life musician hero – even while throwing all the glitter and hoopla to be showered upon him on the screen.
In my humble opinion, the major miscalculation of the film comes from its attempt to tell the story from the viewpoint of a main character played by a glaringly miscast actor. We all know that Tom Hanks can play various real-life figures ranging from Walt Disney to Mister Rogers via his steadily engaging star persona, but I must say that he feels consistently strained as Colonel Tom Parker, who was mainly known as Elvis Presley’s manager. Besides that heavy makeup which is too distracting at times, his Southern accent in the film is as hammy as the one in the Coen brothers’ “The Ladykillers” (2004), and, above all, his natural star persona, which is as wholesome and decent as James Stewart’s, frequently clashes with his increasingly sleazy and opportunistic character.
In contrast, Luhrmann gets a right actor for playing Elvis. Besides ably embodying that familiar swagger and mannerism of Elvis, Austen Butler, a promising newcomer whom we will see again in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming film “Dune: Part 2” (2023), galvanizes the screen whenever that is required, and he confidently holds the center whenever the movie dials up the level of fun and excitement to the level of 11 for Elvis’ music and dance. Although those loud and excessive musical scenes in the film often approach to the realm of those outrageously exaggerated concert scenes of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker’s “Top Secret!” (1984), Butler injects enough sincerity and passion to them, and his dedicated performance is certainly the best thing in the film.
Like Butler, the movie did try the best for entertaining us, but I am not so sure about whether it succeeds as much as intended. Right from the opening part, it alternatively dazzles us via showy camerawork and choppy editing, and it seems to be really ready to delve into Elvis’ life and career, but it only comes to scratch the surface as busily and hurriedly bouncing from one narrative point to another. Sure, we get all those important moments in his life and career, but the movie ultimately feels like the overlong and scattershot compilation album of his greatest hits, and the story unfortunately fails to give enough insight or depth to Elvis. For example, the movie frankly acknowledges the influence of a certain African American music genre on Elvis, but its depiction of this interesting aspect of his artistry is rather heavy-handed, and that is particularly evident when Elvis’ first performance is frantically intercut with what he experienced at an African American church revival during his childhood years.
During its relatively quieter moments, the movie tries to show more of the relationships between Elvis and several other main characters in the story besides Colonel Parker, but these main characters in the film do not have much personality beyond their sincere concern toward Elvis. While his father, played by Richard Roxburgh, is nothing but a pathetic and incompetent loser, his mother, played by Helen Thomson, is usually defined by her disapproving attitude coupled with alcoholism, and Elvis’ relationship with his future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is perfunctory at best and tedious at worst (He was 24 and she was only 14 when they met for the first time during his military service period in Germany, by the way).
Ultimately, the movie tries to imbue more human complexity into the relationship between Elvis and Colonel Parker, but it does not seem to make up its mind about their problematic personal/business relationship. While their relationship swings back and forth between love and hate, we surely get lots of big dramatic moments including the one when Elvis makes a defiant stance against Colonel Parker via his latest song later in the story, but these moments somehow feel shallow without real emotional impact, and the same thing can be said about a part where Elvis is quite troubled and depressed by a couple of tragic historical incidents in the late 1960s.
As a result, the movie comes to trudge more during its last act, which depicts Elvis’ later years in Las Vegas. The movie still has a fair share of loud and shiny entertainment as Elvis tries to keep going on the stage despite many troubles including his serious drug addiction, but the overall result feels like a series of redundant encores before the fizzling ending where the curtain finally goes down upon our hero’s life and career.
Disappointed more with the film, I tried to appreciate more those several enjoyable things in the movie in addition to Butler’s commendable efforts. The production qualities of the film are top-notch to say the least, and I will not be surprised if Catherine Martin, who is incidentally Luhrmann’s wife, receive one or two Oscar nominations for her contribution to its costume and production design in the next year. In case of the soundtrack of the movie, it is surely full of various songs besides those famous songs performed by Elvis, and the score by Elliott Wheeler holds its own place well among those numerous songs in the film.
In conclusion, “Elvis” is another disappointment from Luhrmann after “The Great Gatsby”, but it has all the distinctive touches you can expect from him, and it will not bore you if you are willing to go along with its excessive style and mood. He and his cast and crew members surely try, but I could only observe their mighty efforts from the distance, and that is all.
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