Did you ever wonder what Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story would have been like if Baz Luhrmann had directed it? Well, wonder no more because Luhrmann made Elvis. I imagine there’s a very narrow section of the moviegoing public that is going to really love it. It’s going to be the small cross section of people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of Elvis Presley, those who don’t instantly recognize Walk Hard in every biopic ever now, and those who love Baz Luhrmann movies. I don’t have the first, I can’t let go of the second, but I do really like Baz Luhrmann movies. So, I ended up kind of in the middle on the whole experience, the whole thing buoyed by the central performance from Austin Butler as Elvis.
I didn’t really expect to find John Carpenter’s television movie Elvis to be the superior version of this story, but it is. That longer take gave more time to let things breathe. It wasn’t a great telling of the life of Elvis, but it was a step up from this greatest hits take that Luhrmann shepherded through production. It really is another movie that purports to tell the whole life of a big, complicated man in less than three hours, but with a heavy coat of Baz Luhrmann paint on top. Some of that paint is great, but a lot of it is empty flash, helped none at all by the fact that it spends so little time on any individual event in the man’s life while also heavily relying on Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) as our entry point into the world.
Using something like a wraparound structure with the elderly Parker in mid-90s Las Vegas looking back on the life he had led, discovering, managing, and ruining Elvis Presley, Parker narrates the film while trying to offer his own defense of his actions (Luhrmann obviously places these defenses in ironically since he obviously thinks that Parker is the villain of this piece, despite Parker’s insistence). This has heavy echoes of how Ewan McGregor narrated Moulin Rouge! but without the stronger emotional pull that was the romance of that earlier film. Instead, we get everything from Parker discovering Presley at a Louisiana fair while representing Hank Snow (David Wenham). Describing himself as a snowman, a carnival barker through and through who takes everything in his audience’s pockets leaving nothing but a smile on their faces. When he watches the audience react to Elvis’ shimmy on stage, he knows he’s found his greatest snow job. Elvis is the act, and the audience that will empty out their pockets will be huge.
He quickly gets his claws into Elvis, getting him to break with his small, Memphis record label, break up with his girl, and start on a tour with Snow that shows that Elvis is the future and the draw. He quickly gets Elvis an RCA contract, and the life at the top of the music world begins.
Not that we ever get much of a taste of that world. For a film that does have its share of musical cameos with appearances by BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey), we never see Frank Sinatra or Nathalie Wood, both of whom are mentioned. We also never see the Colonel gambling in this period, even though his gambling debts are a huge motivation for our narrator in pushing so much Elvis merchandize. It doesn’t come up until after the Hollywood period when he suddenly finds himself in a bind with the Las Vegas mob hotelier of The International. Instead, we get Elvis trying to be himself in the face of Southern government displeasure with his dancing moves, pitting the heartfelt singer against heartless old men who hate fun, black people, and integration.
Elvis’ ties to the black community stemming from his childhood and tastes in music are actually some of the best stuff in this film, though the movie doesn’t exactly have a whole lot to say about it beyond the blindingly obvious. He felt connected to them, so when he saw injustices against them he felt bad in return. He was also an entertainer who entertained in certain ways, and the powers that be didn’t like that because of the black influences on what he did. Some of the absolute best stuff in terms of editing is the breakdown of Elvis’ musical influences as Luhrmann cuts from those black entertainers, gospel singers, and crooners from his youth as he distills them into a more widely popular form through his music. It’s done without explicit explanation, and it’s actually kind of great.
However, since this is a biopic that must follow every large step in his life, we follow him to Hollywood after his stint in Germany to recast him as a good, traditional, American boy, complete with his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). This period is more defined by some kind of ill-defined growing unease with the direction of the country, mostly through the televised coverages of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. He stops his frantic moves for his career (with Parker always right there hawking some new thing) while his career diminishes in Hollywood where he suddenly stops to look soulfully at the television and wonder what he could be doing. Parker won’t allow public statements or politicking, so when it comes time to do a television Christmas special, Elvis does it his own way, capping it with a protest song that relaunches his career.
Are you tired yet? Well, this movie still has the whole Las Vegas period to go, and I really feel like this should have been the whole movie. As the film was going through its final act, I suddenly imagined what Danny Boyle would have done with this material, and I think he would have found a way to distill the larger story into a single point of time instead of trying to cover the whole life of a man. The Las Vegas period, the culmination of Parker’s control over Elvis for his own ends, seems like that perfect concentrated dose of reality for that. Instead, it’s the third act in a long, bloated, and thin take on Elvis.
Do I dislike this film? Not really. It’s okay. If it didn’t have the thick coat of Baz Luhrmann tinted paint on it, Elvis would be just another typical biopic. With that paint, it’s a Baz Luhrmann joint as well, and I like Baz Luhrmann joints. The cinematic and editing energy he infuses into every moment is something that I get into pretty easily. It’s just that the whole life of Elvis is never great cinematic material because cinema can’t capture that much in such a short amount of time.
But still, Austin Butler is great, especially on stage. He goes well beyond caricature, similar to how Kurt Russell was more than just caricature, and makes the stage his own as the King of Rock and Roll. He’s wildly compelling as he croons and shimmies. I’d be surprised if he didn’t get a Best Actor nomination at the end of the year.
Overall, though, meh. Bloated, aimless, and thin, it has little to nothing to say about Elvis while just trying to hit the high points, but I do love that Baz Luhrmann paint job.