Directed by Baz Luhrmann
That was a hunk a hunk of something. “Elvis,” director Baz Luhrmann’s energetic biopic of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, plays fast ‘n’ loose with facts. But does that really matter? Luhrmann, whose five previous feature-length directing efforts include among them “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby,” is known best for his bombast. “Elvis” is, true to form, more concerned with form than function. It’s more interested in wowing audiences than telling them the truth. It’s like Luhrmann took a lesson from Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the mysterious carnival manager who took a young Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) under his wing. Parker was looking for a new act to open for his country western star Hank Snow, but when he found Elvis, he quickly realized the kid had superstar potential. Parker realized that Elvis had the much-admired Black sound, but without the Black skin that would make financial success all but impossible in mid-century America. And, according to Luhrmann’s film, Parker rode Elvis until his cash cow couldn’t give anymore. Whether or not the facts support that, you’ve gotta admit it’s a damn good story.
“Elvis” treats Tom Parker as if he’s half the reason Elvis exists, but based on the trailer, truthfully, I feared it’d be even worse. Really, Parker is just used as a narrator, someone to funnel Elvis’s life story through. But Tom Hanks’s performance troubled me. Under layers of prosthetics (Parker really did look like a “Bob’s Burgers” character, though), Hanks hisses his lines in an inexplicable Dutch accent that the real-life Parker didn’t actually have (despite his nationality). I don’t know whose idea that was, but it makes Parker so much harder to relate to. He sounds like an ‘80s action movie villain and looks like an inflatable lawn Santa. But maybe a cartoon is exactly what Luhrmann wanted, because his colorful film sometimes looks more like animation than real life (and I’m sure it is even more computer-animated than it looks). Walking in, I didn’t set the bar high for Austin Butler. An actor since he was a kid, his biography on IMDb is written, according to the byline, by his “proud parents.” Until a minor role in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” his biggest roles were in kid shows like “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide” and “iCarly.” After two hours of real acting, though, I consider Butler’s performance the leading contender for Best Actor. He’s asked to do a lot, and he delivers. At times, he looks like a man possessed. He’s not always singing (Luhrmann usually uses Elvis’s original vocals, when they worked), but his voice was sometimes spliced in to make the performance seem even more realistic. It works like a charm. The scenes where Elvis is performing (especially the first Vegas show) are as high-octane and thrilling as anything I’ve seen all year. There’s no doubt that when “Elvis” is at its best, it can really soar. Unfortunately, its low points are almost as extreme.
For one, the movie is all over the place. Especially in the beginning, “Elvis” jumps around so much you’re at risk of whiplash. By the midway point, you might look back at this biopic and wonder how many actual things you’ve learned about its subject. “Elvis” picks a few key scenes, and builds a movie around them. But in doing so, it glosses over some of the important moments in Elvis’s life, telling us about them (when they do at all) through Tom Hank’s hurried narration. I don’t know if I learned anything about Elvis Presley. On the contrary, I think I might be more confused than ever because of the things Luhrmann says that weren’t true (or, at the very least, were merely speculation).
But Luhrmann’s sense of how to swindle an audience out of its money and make them feel happy about it is simply unmatched. “Elvis” is a spirited movie that made me feel like audiences must have felt when they saw Elvis perform. It’s lively, and fun, and disorganized, and inaccurate, and totally worth every penny.