‘Elvis’ review: Baz Luhrmann’s flashy musical biopic is nothing you’d expect, or even want

Elvis Presley, infamous for his swinging hips, iconic for his swaggering style and raw sex appeal, heralded as the king of rock and roll, deserves better than Elvis.

Remarkably, Baz Luhrmann, the visionary behind scorching and prodigious cinema like Romeo + Juliet and Red Mill!, translated Presley’s life, whose indulgences included sex, drugs and decadent junk food, into bloated, flaccid boredom. Determined to frustrate audiences, this bizarre drama goes off the rails in its very first steps.

Forget what you expect from a movie titled Elvis. Forget what you could expect from Baz Luhrmann. This movie isn’t a biopic about Elvis Presley, as it treats his life as loose inspiration for a confusing exploration of a much darker (and much less adored or even famous) figure. Curiously, the film is not really a musical either.

Of course, Luhrmann features Elvis classics amid the flood of songs that creep into his soundscape, some covers by new artists for a fresh twist. However, there are few musical numbers in which audiences could savor the spellbinding spectacle Luhrmann’s attachment might have you anticipating. The montages outnumber the musical numbers, cutting the King’s signature moves and bold stage presence into shimmering confetti that’s flashy but hard to remember. Even his most crucial performances will be undermined by reaction shots for Elvisthe disconcerting center of interest: Colonel Tom Parker.

Tom Hanks is insufferable as Elvis‘s unreliable narrator.

Lurhmann’s view of Presley is filtered through the self-centered, morphine-altered perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, the business manager who was later blamed for the King’s financial troubles, vices, and untimely demise. In a squeaky voiceover that Luhrmann covers throughout the film, the Colonel declares that he’s not the bad guy the world sees him as. Really, he insists, he was the creator of Elvis. Parker is our unwanted guide through Presley’s life, treating the man, the myth, the legend as if the king were Frankenstein’s monster, needing his mad inventor’s guidance to survive the cruel world watching him.

Maybe the cast of America’s Dad for this obnoxious figure was supposed to inspire us to trust the Colonel, just as a naive Elvis does. However, Hanks’ folksy charms are swallowed up by a big, goofy suit, prosthetic jowls, and a dizzying, marble-mouthed accent. (The real colonel was nothing like what Hanks does here, making this bouncy collision of – say South American and Dutch – all the more inexplicable.) Worse still, Hanks plays the role of a cartoonish villain, always hiding, lying and leering. Beyond being a performance horror, it makes Elvis an absolute ruby.

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Elvis infantilizes his hero to praise him.

Although he plays quickly and very freely with the facts of Presley’s life and presents his story through the selfish eyes of a con artist, Elvis falls into the biopic trap of flattering its hero. To the Colonel, Elvis is a benevolent thug who loved his mom, his young wife, his Memphis Mafia buddies, and every one of his fans. Reinforcing this image, The Colonel – or more precisely Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce – touches on the most problematic elements of Presley’s life. For example, the 20-something musician’s courtship with a 14-year-old Priscilla is treated as inexplicably wholesome, even when lustful fangirls knock on his bedroom window in a jealous frenzy.

Additionally, Presley’s whitewashing of black culture — through his music, movements, and fashion sense — is presented as heartfelt adoration. Again and again, jubilant images of black people living their lives give way to a close-up of a wide-eyed Elvis taking it all, as if it were his to take. Kelvin Harrison Jr. enjoys a small role as BB King, a blues legend who is featured here as a guide for Elvis, explaining privilege and its power. Meanwhile, Yola, Shonka Dukureh, and Alton Mason get less screen time, playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Little Richard, respectively. Yet each brings such power and sensuality to their performances that they make this Elvis look tame.

Austin Butler gets the voice, but not the soul or sex appeal, of Elvis Presley.

As Elvis, Austin Butler does a superb impression of that signature voice and work capable of mimicking the physique that has set the hearts of millions of fans on fire. He’s a handsome man who looks great in, say, a pink suit and a lacy mesh shirt, but there’s something missing that keeps him from fully realizing the scorching heat of Elvis the pelvis. A savagery is absent. Even in his most polished films, Presley had this carnal and therefore dangerous air. Even when he was singing Christmas songs, that sexy growl of his lips had coveted listeners.

Essentially, Butler’s Elvis is too pared down to feel true to Presley’s personality. But that may be Luhrmann’s intention. In this never-ending voiceover, the Colonel constantly views Elvis as a shiny golden goose, smoothing over the rougher bits that make him a harder sell. Maybe Luhrmann is doing it too, trying to make Elvis’ sultry sensationalism seem antiquated by today’s standards. (As if shaking music idols hip still doesn’t drive people crazy.)

Elvis isn’t a musical or a good biopic – so what is?

At two hours and 39 minutes, Elvis is a grueling visit with an unreliable narrator whose version of the story effectively sanitizes and neutralizes one of the most intriguing rock ‘n roll stories of all time. As Presley’s music plays throughout, preparing the audience for elation, Elvis never delivers the kind of satisfying spectacle we expect from a Luhrmann vehicle. At best, what we get is scattered, instead of “Come What May”.

There are moments of excellence, like the kinetic musical performances of Yola, Dukureh and Mason. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who recently wowed critics for his performance in the subtle thriller The power of the dog, is refreshing fun as a beanpole country singer who comes to life under the free influence of Elvis. The soundtrack rocks with tracks like Dukureh’s rendition of “Hound Dog,” switching to “Vegas” by Doja Cat. And yet Elvis is too often awash with busy split-screens, disembodied expositional dialogue, and montages that treat big moments like chores to be done, Luhrmann sometimes slows down for mere visual pleasure, like the shot of a family praying in an alley illuminated by a resplendent moonlight. In these moments there is glory and grace, but they feel too few and far between.

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Elvis is a case where more is less.

Luhrmann is loved for his excess and bold musical choices, just like Presley was. So this should have been a match made at Graceland. However, Luhrmann Elvis doesn’t care about the man behind the legend. He is fascinated by how the Colonel could have deceived the King over and over again for years. He’s too impressed with Presley and his legacy to confuse it with complexity. Swept away by the sheen of leather and jeweled jumpsuits, Luhrmann towers above the messy human who has lurked below. And so, it lacks the heart that could have made his film truly spectacular.

Elvis is now in theaters.