Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is an Exhausting Magnum Opus

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

With the rhinestone-adorned arrival of Baz Luhrmann’s biopic Elvis, one may ask how relevant or revered is “The King” nearly a half-century after his death at age 42. In this writer’s opinion, renowned author, journalist and culture critic Greil Marcus summarized Elvis Presley the best:

“Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues. Reviews of his concerts, by usually credible writers, sometimes resemble Biblical accounts of heavenly miracles. Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of shlock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.”

So much of Marcus’s illustration bleeds out of the celluloid pores of Luhrmann’s film, especially that final sentence with all of those descriptors of greatness. Elvis Presley was each and everyone one of those and then some. If you didn’t know those qualities, Elvis will inject them into your veins like heroin. If you did know them, your body was already ready.

A man in a black shirt leans against a doorway.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Processing such delirium for 159 minutes from what could have been 240, Elvis is an opus of exhaustion. Luhrmann’s fever dream veers from campfire fable to therapy session and is as gaudy as its subject. You don’t just succumb to the Aussie filmmaker’s trademark visual and aural excess. You submit to it, because, goodness gracious, it’s Elvis Aaron Presley and the stature of his legend on this display is indomitable.

Within the arduous pace of the reasonably chronologically-straight movie, that mushrooming threshold of submission happens a little after the halfway point of the movie. The mid-climax set piece is the behind-the-scenes recreation of his 1968 comeback special. When Elvis (Austin Butler of The Carrie Diaries) hijacks what is supposed to be a Christmas-themed program promoted by his longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker (two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks), we see a new attitude from what was presented up to that point.

Two men ride a ferris wheel to talk.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Before this, Parker’s nefarious narration outlined the podunk miracle from Tupelo, Mississippi who became his harvested rags-to-riches enigma flying like a comet into pop culture fame, one riotous concert and borrowed hit at a time. The God-fearing boy who grew up in black churches to walk among blues greats like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) on Beale Street in Memphis, saw his popularity rise and peak against criminal charges of vulgarity, the upheaval of segregation barriers, criticism of cultural appropriation, career-pausing years of military service, marrying the love of his life Priscilla (The Visit’s Olivia DeJonge), and seeing his legacy fade into a string of dud Hollywood movies.

On this big night, the stale loser image was smashed by a returning heartthrob dressed entirely in black leather instead of a ugly Christmas sweater, one of many dynamic recreations from 4-time Oscar-winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin (Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby). Butler’s crooner steps into the spotlight to sing his old hits with a new, sexy, and matured splash of soul and commitment. After 90 minutes and a nearly-constant fast-forward pace of the movie from Luhrmann, time feels like it slows down for this performance piece. Mulan cinematographer Mandy Walker takes everything in to observe Austin Butler at his charismatic peak in a stretch where Tom Hanks’ parasitic puppeteer finally shuts up.

A man looks back towards his band from the front of a stage microphone
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

That televised event is a crucial scene. It is an overwhelming moment of brilliance and defiance and a reminder of Elvis’s established power and aura. We pine that the observed new vigor rids the con man’s control and sticks around to thrust Presley back into the exalted heavens where his impact and reputation belong. The resurgence from the 1968 special catapulted him into the Las Vegas residency years that would gild his career in more gold while ultimately being the setting of his eventual downfall.

How does one put forward a deep cut on one of the most widely beloved and documented cultural icons? The answer is a concise film cannot. It either safely celebrates the existing lionization or it fails to complement the glory. The challenge for dramatic license with Elvis is selective presentation and stamina. That’s where Baz Luhrmann chose an unusual course.

A man looks up from his lounge couch dressed in black.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Luhrman and his team of three writers carrying screenplay and story credit (including The Killing TV writer Jeremy Doner) decided to channel the glitz and glamor of Elvis through an unethical villain as the storytelling mouthpiece. Tom Hanks plays the over-tuned carny “snowman” that squeezes his centerpiece act (and this very movie) for whatever attention and possible character moments of honesty and insight he can steal. Plodding through garish makeup, a rough accent, and cringe-worthy lines that create far too much unintentional laughter, Hanks makes the most of a thankless role while denying the main character much of his own voice when no microphone stands in front of him.

Like its subject’s orgasmic hips, Elvis can’t hold still either. Just because the singer gyrates doesn’t mean the whole movie has to as well. Luhrmann has long had a frenetic, Michael Bay-level average shot length consistently beneath three seconds, creating what had to be an editing nightmare for his The Great Gatsby editors Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa. Throw in a zillion establishing shots of the same exterior swoops and even some split-screen sections that multiply the flickering imagery, and Elvis can be a busy tornado of undisciplined overstimulation.

A man swings his body while singing on stage.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

When that average shot length stretches itself, it’s because Austin Butler seizes the fixation from Walker’s enchanted and kinetic camera. That aforementioned stamina and exhaustion within Elvis nearly entirely comes from him. His portrayal of the behavior ticks, drawl, and, most of all, stage presence is a wonder to behold. The 31-year-old is an electric uncovered treasure in this enormous role that could very well garner awards attention and springboard his career.

There’s a little chestnut line in the movie about how one smart thing can overcome ten stupid things. Doing the math minute-to-minute, you may very well tally more or less than 16 smart aspects of Elvis and 144 awful ones. There’s no doubt Baz Luhrmann put everything he possibly could into this picture. One has to respect the effort and dedication. Granted, even with Oscar-worthy production value, it’s all way, way, way too much. Nevertheless, the hero worship is genuine, even with the off-putting unreliable narrator telling the tale. Elvis creates a jolt for viewers surviving the repetitive showmanship and biopic tropes. It’s an ordeal, but it’s Elvis Presley and we’re hooked.

A soldier leans to kiss his woman.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

To conclude and possibly understand Luhrmann’s love, soak in the core of an acceptance speech Presley gave at a 1971 ceremony for the US Jaycees that gets mentioned in Elvis:

“When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream that I ever dreamed, has come true a hundred times. I learned very early in life that:

Without a song, the day would never end; 

Without a song, a man ain’t got a friend;

Without a song, the road would never bend;

Without a song…

So I keep singing a song.”

Go ahead, Baz. Keep on singing your loud and ostentatious filmmaking songs with all their pizzazz. From mediocre to great, Elvis’s songs live on. So will Luhrmann’s.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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