By Roshan Chandy
The King has not returned.
Baz Luhrmann is officially the enfant terrible of Western cinema. He completely butchered The Great Gatsby, made a total, racist horlicks out of Australia and turned in the worst Shakespeare adaptation of all time in the 1996 Romeo and Juliet which would leave the Bard spinning furiously in his tomb. The man is a showman, a jester, a performer. A filmmaker characterized by a flashy, flamboyant style, but a severe lack of substance. Perhaps that’s a fitting motif for making a biopic about the King of Rock n’ Roll and indeed style and substances – Elvis Presley.
Elvis was, in many ways, a Luhrmann-esque character. On the one hand, he was a man of flash and paparazzi; glittering all his productions and performances in lots of glitter and gold. On the other hand, he was a sad, lonesome, depressive musician. He was a classic case of pretty boy gone bad and washed-up alcoholic, pill-popping rock star. He was also a man lacking a father figure in his life which was more than manifested by his portly manager Colonel Tom Parker (here played by Tom Hanks in a prosthetic fat suit).
You would initially and immediately think Luhrmann the man to make a biopic about the King. Elvis was, of course, a performer, an artist, a musical idol much like Baz himself. He loved the limelight, but also hated it and coated all his productions in coats of gold and glitz. He was indeed a very handsome, beautiful even greaser much like Baz himself.
But that’s part of the problem with this biopic. It’s so caught up in all the pap and pop that it forgets the key ingredient that made Elvis so successful in the first place – talent. It’s all good glittering and fruitcaking the frame in lots of paparazzi pizzazz. Where Elvis fails is in providing anything beneath the surface of its Flash Gordon fantasy.
The first thing to say is that Austin Butler is a one-note Mr. Presley. He’s a very good-looking man, sure – much like the King. I loved his pompadour haircut and jet black trim. He wears the Orion costumes swelteringly and, boy, does he look hot, hot, hot in the shades. There’s something of the young Johnny Depp – specifically his performance in Cry Baby (1990) – about the young actor. He appears to be channeling that actor’s slurring, swaggering style, but without any of his character actor charm or charisma. I really felt this was less a transformation than an audition. I guess the fact that Butler is a relative unknown might work in his favour. We might judge him less harshly than we would a Hollywood a-lister if he butchered the King. But this performance is as much a caricature as Malcolm McDowell as Caligula. I never got the sense I was watching the King – more just a half-hearted pop at him.
Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker is better. I’ve always thought Tom Hanks has a character type he does really well, but is never a character actor. But he more than convinces in the fat suit and at piling on the pounds. He captures Parker’s deep south drawl and fat-faced figure with 200lb gusto. It’s certainly one of the better manager performances at the movies and has more weight and full figureness than Butler’s shiny, but empty impersonation of Elvis.
There are certain elements of this movie that I absolutely hated the same way I hate most Baz Luhrmann movies. For one thing, his mixing of the old and new. Specifically featuring new songs on a mixtape in a movie about the 1950s and 60s. He’s got Eminem on the soundtrack rapping about misanthropy and misogyny. Really?! Eminem in the 1950s?! I don’t think so! It’s worse than having will.I.am play in 1920s Gatsby. I guess Eminem raps better than the Black Eyed Peas.
When it comes to music from the King himself, I will say there is surprisingly little in the way of belters. Many of the King’s songs play in the background as Elvis pops pills and glugs Vodka in his bathroom mirror. But there’s never the musical synchronicity or velocity of Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman (2019) which was a full-fledged musical fantasia. Even the po-faced Freddie Mercury Wiki biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) had more and better music than Luhrmann’s lacklustre King movie.
The rest of the movie treads beats that have become as yawn-worthy as anything we’ve come to expect from the music biopic genre. As true to tradition, there’s a scene in the recording studio. A scene in the manager’s office. And a scene on stage in front of millions. I guess Elvis’ story was one of all those things, of a rock n’ roll lifestyle and the dark side of fame. But haven’t we seen all this and that in a million music biopics? Have some creativity Baz!
At 3 hours, Elvis is too flashy for its own good and too generic for the King himself. It’s a movie that only skims the surface of the man’s extraordinary joie de vivre and cops out of giving us the emotional resolution we crave from a story about the great man. It has an absence of songs and an abundance of cliches. And a half-hearted X-Factor audition of a performance in Austin Butler.
Well done, Baz, you’ve butchered another classic. The King would be turning in his grave!