A star is born in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” Austin Butler’s performance as the rock’n’roll legend is simply jaw-dropping. In an astonishing turn, the actor melts completely into Elvis, announcing the arrival of one hell of a committed actor. Unfortunately, Butler’s performance (and a couple of scenes towards the film’s end) are the only worthy piece of this near travesty of a motion picture.
The massively over-directed film takes its audience on the wild journey that was the life of Elvis Presley with the lunkheaded decision to focus on the hold of “Colonel” Tom Parker on Elvis, too often slowing the dramatic flow, such as it is, and often making Elvis a secondary character in his own story.
As everyone knows, Parker (a con man of the lowest order) saw his meal ticket in Presley and latched onto the hottest musical act in the world, eventually destroying the singer financially and morally.Through truly awful narration, Hanks, with a heavy accent, becomes the unreliable narrator, as he pleads for the audience to not cast him as the villain. In fact, history tells us that Parker, the devil of the piece, was just that, a self-serving man who used Elvis’ innocent Southern soul and kind heart to feed his gambling addiction. Tom Hanks, we know, is a fantastic actor who despite a number of hiccups (“Road to Perdition,” “The Ladykillers,” “The Post,”) can sell almost any role he takes on, delivering mostly solid and committed performances. This is not the case in Luhrmann’s film.
In a doomed effort to look like Parker, which he doesn’t, he’s made to wear bad prosthetics that render his face too stiff to emote. The only resources left for him to use are his eyes and voice, failing at both. The certainly unsought result is that Hanks shows us the limits of his range; with his shifty eyes and bad accent, the beloved actor gives the worst performance of his career. This is Col. Tom Parker by way of Charles Nelson Reilly.
On another note, Luhrmann tries hard to capture the scandal Elvis caused by bringing pure undiluted rock’n’roll to the masses. Young America ate it up while older white America resisted the music pioneered by Black musicians presented to them by a young white man from the South. Unfortunately, the filmmaker isn’t interested in much exploration. Fast cutting and a camera that won’t stay on its subject for more than a few seconds drown any exhilaration from those scenes.
While it is important for us to hear Elvis sing and the film certainly makes this happen, the director is too impatient, never letting Presley finish more than a couple of verses before the camera begins whooshing around on flights of fancy, completely losing the magic of Elvis’s presence. Luhrmann’s use of music is almost a complete failure. In telling the story of the man and his music, the film comes up with only six or seven Elvis songs. We hear “Hound Dog” three or four times in different incarnations and are treated to a few more of his hits, but that is all, save for the finale set in stage in Vegas. Luhrmann completely robs his audience of many great Elvis works. Also, in a film loaded with cinematic sins, to include modern rap and R&B songs is jarring to the legacy of Elvis and his fans. The filmmaker bridges the connections between Elvis and the music by the Black musicians of the time, with its influence on many of today’s artists. But the use of contemporary music doesn’t work.
The screenplay tries to hit the serious issues of Elvis’s life. The controversy over his appropriation of Black music is glossed over. The director had the chance to show how Presley didn’t steal the Black sound, as he is too often accused of doing. The musician was influenced by the sound and infused it into his own works as a tribute, but the film fails to explore these exonerating facts.
We are shown how his family lived in the Black areas of town and witness a young Elvis fully immersed into the sounds of Gospel and Rhythm and Blues and how the sounds of this time and meeting an array of important Black musicians are what draw the young man to singing.The portrayals of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quarterly), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) all show us an Elvis most comfortable and unfiltered around these music legends. These moments are too short, and the screenplay could have benefited from more dialogue between Elvis and the musicians who inspired him.
Presley’s relationship with his mother is also fumbled. It is well known how close the two were. Elvis’s mom was his entire world. Helen Thompson gives a decent performance, but she becomes lost in all of Luhrmann’s directorial hubbub and the heart of the mother and son relationship is lost.
Olivia DeJonge shows promise as Priscilla, but after a sweet scene where the two begin to fall for one another, the actress and character are thrown into the background, once again denying the audience the drama from the heart of their relationship.
All in all, the screenplay (by Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner, Craig Pearce, and Luhrmann) fails to let the audience get to know the famed “Memphis Mafia”. These are the friends and cousins who were with Elvis 24 hours a day, watching over him and keeping the man safe and as happy as possible. Together with “The King”, they were a legendary wild group of guys who respected one another and were with him until the end. None of this is properly explored.
The film’s insights into its subject ring hollow and the moments of Elvis’ life fly by in a blaze of bright lights and cranked up camera zooms that make the directing style of Michael Bay look like the films of Merchant-Ivory. The legend of Elvis Presley doesn’t need visual assistance to show his on-stage power.
Beyond all this, that Butler’s performance is superb bears repeating. He captures Presley’s every nuance inside and out with the skill of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in their respective heydays. I have never seen an actor inhabit Presley so completely, save for Kurt Russell’s equally great turn in John Carpenter’s 1979 television miniseries.
The actor’s great work receives its due in the film’s second half. While Luhrmann’s style is still impatient, the scenes of Elvis’ 1968 comeback special are well done. The moment where he defies Parker and sings “If I Can Dream” has an emotional power that hints at what the entire film could have been, as do the glitzy and elaborate final years on the stages of Las Vegas. The moment where Elvis creates his late-career sound with his band finding the rhythms is pure magic. Why the director fails at capturing that lightning in the two hours that came before is a true mystery.
While Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is a bloated, headache-inducing mess, never getting to the soul of the man with not the least new insight given into his life or legend, Butler’s stunning commitment saves the picture from complete hopelessness. For every misstep in the direction, the screenplay, and every goofy line flatly delivered by Tom Hanks, Austin Butler as Elvis Presley is a revelation, giving one of the best performances of recent memory. I wanted to like this film. I love the music of Elvis Presley and the man was not only an American original but a groundbreaker and a stunning performer quite aware of his impact which is only now, almost fifty years after his death, beginning to fade from memories.
A quote from Elvis’ song “I Want to Be Free” sums up my disappointment with this film.
“There’s no joy in my heart,
And I’m sad
as a man can be”