Baz Luhrmann couldn’t help but make his take on the king of rock and roll, simply titled Elvis, as outlandish, style-obsessed, and paranoia-stricken as possible, perhaps to outrun the easy comparisons to Walk Hard through sheer speed of gyration. That’s the thing, Luhrmann has never been content with adapting novels, plays, or in this case a musical career without filtering it through his signature flourishes. Not just to make the film loud, unpredictable, and unwieldy in its storytelling approach, but to somehow satisfyingly capture the fable of Elvis Presley by indeed making a fable of his own.
Though the world has no shortage of Elvis impersonators, Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) boldly and proudly steps up to the microphone. He offers his own voice mixed with the real thing — and most certainly his own dance moves, as well — in an effort to guide the audience through an often nonlinear tour of Presley’s bombastic career. There’s the Pentecostal revival of his childhood, showcasing Elvis’s upbringing and earliest musical influences regarding the Black community in Mississippi and later Memphis to his deal with the devil on the carnival circuit with “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who effectively narrates the film despite stressing (unintentionally on his part) that he is the real and clear villain of Elvis’s tragic story. Sadly, Hanks’ accent and overall performance is the villain of this movie.
Luhrmann is a natural showman, so it makes sense for his take on Elvis to insist upon itself. Watching the film do somersaults in its transitions and off-kilter framing gives off a similar woozy feeling Elvis himself experiences toward the back half, arguably needlessly. The kind of person who would react strongest to a biopic like this would have to be a mythical watcher, someone with an old enough soul to appreciate the rock and roll of it all while also being young enough to keep up with the film’s frenetic storytelling. It’s a unique problem that most films of this kind would love to have, in which your otherwise stuffy and dry historical retelling has effortless cinematic appeal, particularly on the back of Butler’s full-throated performance, in which he miraculously embodies the soul of Elvis without falling into the same toon world that apparently took hold of Hanks.
At 159 minutes, it would be almost redundant to point out that Elvis is an indulgent piece of work, begging for an encore (or two) few asked for. Yet the film tragically leaves you wanting more, all the same, as some of the most exciting, even invigorating aspects of Elvis’s life get brushed past in favor of extended sequences with hardly any artistic merit. If Warner Bros. really wants this to be the definitive Elvis picture, well, no thank you very much.
Elvis is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.