Baz Luhrmann has never been given credit for his cinematic innovation, so let it be said here that with Elvis he has pioneered the first film to consist exclusively of montage from beginning to end. The whole Greatest Hits of montage are here: newspaper headlines by the truckload; a ferris wheel that turns into a spinning record; a succession of screaming audiences from one town to another; concert posters signifying Elvis’s growing fame, in which his name moves up the bill; money and the trappings of fame. Luhrmann’s fondness for this most hackneyed of techniques is but a symptom of a wider disease in his filmmaking, namely his disturbing addiction to hacking and remixing. The director cannot hear a song but he has to chop it up, spin it around, put a donk on it, slow it down, add a breathy vocal, speed it up again, chuck in a gospel choir, hit the echo pedal, and finish it off with an irrelevant rap outro. As in his process, so it is with his storytelling: it’s dispiriting that he doesn’t trust his material to capture our attention off its own bat, but instead gussies it up like Blackpool illuminations. Elvis is a film for babies.
The supposed hook for this new film is that it focuses on the financial abuse of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler, who is not the worst thing in the film) by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, who might be). This could have been a rich angle from which to tackle the legend of Elvis Presley, whose story is already very well-known, from his debut as a young rockabilly star to his Las Vegas residency, via his purchase of Graceland and his growing dependence on drugs and alcohol. Luhrmann’s movie hits all of these beats, hammering home with wide eyes a series of commonplace observations about Presley, such as the fact that his music meshed white country music with the stylings of Black music. There are doubtless people in the world to whom this incredibly famous fact was not known, and it’s only natural that an Elvis biopic would address it, but it’s the way Luhrmann goes about it that grates. Here, we get a hilarious crash zoom on Tom Hanks realizing that the kid he’s hearing on the radio is white; a languorous scene of child-Elvis witnessing a ridiculous “sexy” blues performance in a tent, and taking part in a gospel revival during which he apparently receives the spirit of Black music; there is also expository dialogue to this effect, newspaper headlines about segregation, and a bankrupt scene in which Elvis, already an established star, draws inspiration from an up-and-comer by the name of Little Richard.
This approach significantly overplays Elvis’s innovation, and is meretricious when it comes to recognizing the way he appropriated music by artists of color such as Little Richard. In reality, Little Richard had been performing for many years by the time Presley got around to recording “That’s All Right,” and “Tutti Frutti” was released not long after Presley’s debut with Sun Records. This matters, because far from being an exemplar of American musical miscegenation, Elvis mostly got his start by stealing from Black artists, and got the chances that they wouldn’t have had because of his whiteness.
Having spent so much time telling this alternative history, Luhrmann then goes on to flunk other aspects of Elvis’s life—for instance, Presley goes from being a promising young upstart with a growing recognition to being a superstar who owns Graceland and sells merchandise. The death of Presley’s adored mother is also hilariously fluffed—one moment she’s alive, and the next second Austin Butler is crying over her blouses in a walk-in wardrobe, with barely any mention of the fact that his ma has conked it in the intervening period. These errors matter, because the film is so extraordinarily long and spends what feels like decades on elements of Presley’s life that are considerably less interesting (such as the Vegas residency), that the film feels cobbled together, a ragbag.
Amongst all this, the familiar problems of biopics emerge—not least the fact that Elvis is an extraordinarily famous icon, and is one of the most imitated people on the planet. Austin Butler does a perfectly creditable job in this regard, particularly during musical performances. During scenes of dialogue, his Elvis voice occasionally sounds strained, but the main thing is that he is not distracting. Late scenes in which we see the real Elvis perform show up the difference in charisma quite painfully, but then again the real Elvis didn’t have to fight against his surroundings in order to convince people. Opposite Butler, Tom Hanks, all prosthetics and creepy voice stylings, plays Colonel Tom Parker as a sort of predatory alien—but for some reason his performance never comes alive. There needed to be so much more villainy, a lot more edge to this controlling character, rather than have him be an unreliable narrator on the sidelines. This failure to get Tom Parker across tanks what could have been the film’s most interesting facet: a grim look at Elvis as a caged plaything might make for a stunning film, perhaps by another director than Luhrmann.
Elvis is such a gaudy, buzzing, relentless object, which for 2.5 hours lurches about flashing its gold like a drunk old millionaire in a strip joint. The overall effect produced by so much frenetic vulgarity, so many shiny effects, is one of utter exhaustion. Luhrmann will doubtless never slow down, but there could still be time for him to marshal his hyperactive cinema into some sort of shape, perhaps with the aid of one stubborn screenwriter (Elvis credits about 192 people on script duties) who can bring something recognizably human to his world.