Director: Baz Luhrmann
Talent: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge.
Release Date: June 24
After Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, La Bohème and the history of Australia, Baz Luhrmann has a new piñata to wallop: the King himself. A two-and-a-half-hour flip-book on the life of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), Luhrmann’s Elvis is – as ever with the self-professed prophet of ‘Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love’ – entirely too much and not nearly enough.
The film is bookended by the deathbed recollections of ‘Colonel’ Parker (Tom Hanks), Presley’s notorious manager-cum-slavedriver. This is an interesting idea – framing a hagiography from the perspective of its villain – but it isn’t carried through with any consistency. We return sporadically to Hanks’ pantomime-accented voice-over, but much of what is on screen is cradle-to-grave material on Presley himself, including assorted domestic scenes to which the Colonel wasn’t even party.
The conventionality of the material is relentlessly tarted up with swirls, whip-pans and smash-cutting montages that usually make their point in one cut, then carry on for another hundred. An early sequence juxtaposing a young Elvis’s experience of both sacred and profane music is clever, but continues into overkill before being swallowed in the tide of a production that starts at maximum and barrels on without variation.
For a director who makes musicals and pseudo-musicals – and even had a brief top-forty foray himself (remember that?) – Luhrmann seems, in some obscure but real way, to actively hate music. Presley’s songs are not so much performed as they are assaulted, smashed into pieces and smeared around the auditorium in deafening surround sound. This correspondent can’t recall hearing a single song from beginning to end in this biopic of the best-selling solo artist of all time – although we do get a couple of bars from Britney Spears’ Toxic sandwiched in for no particular reason.
There is, of course, something to be said for filmmaking on this scale, since we don’t see a great deal of it any more. Flailing gestures to modernity aside, one has to hand it to Uncle Baz for the old-fashioned hucksterism of making something this big, tacky and relentless. Neither taste, nor insight, nor the constrictions of a worldwide pandemic could lower his megaphone – although the latter does make for some very iffy green-screen work. The shame of it is that this dogged pursuit of ‘vision’ seems drained of vision itself – the film has no point of view, no real sense of ‘Elvis’ as anything other than another intellectual property to exploit. A vista of the performer’s name being erected in towering letters on a Las Vegas billboard is repeated ad nauseam – an abstraction whose value is presumed by its recognisability alone.
Some compensation is provided by the cast. Butler is a perfectly acceptable Elvis, and though Hanks is pretty dreadful, there’s a certain pleasure in seeing him play a ghoul. Kelvin Harrison Jr. has some nice moments as B.B. King. It’s easy to deduce that the women most associated with Presley are very much alive, and potentially litigious: Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is painted as a plaster saint; Ann-Margret is never mentioned.
Words: David Turpin
Illustration: Helen McGlynn