It’s been nine years since Baz Luhrmann made a mess of The Great Gatsby and, if nothing else, gave the world a Leonardo DiCaprio GIF so ubiquitous that searches for “cheers” and “congrats” will likely generate it within the first two or three results.
Now, the Aussie’s signature brand of moon-eyed maximalism is out to claim another cultural icon as his latest victim. The music biopic Elvis is about everything you would expect from the Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! director: visually extravagant, thuddingly obvious, occasionally inspired, and above all, supremely self-satisfied. At 159 minutes, it plays like the longest supercut video ever uploaded to YouTube. Sure, it moves and doesn’t feel its length while you’re watching it, but by the end, it becomes clear that little new has been conveyed about the King’s legacy.
Austin Butler sports the well-oiled mane of Memphis rocker Elvis Presley, who meets Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) backstage at a Louisiana Hayride show in 1954. The King’s signature shaking was born that night, and Parker sees dollar signs in those hips, convincing Presley to let him manage his career. We then take a whirlwind tour through Elvis’ life and career, influenced by rock pioneers like Little Richard (Alton Mason) and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the latter of whom particularly sees his potential to break down racial divides in the country. To avoid arrest for his lascivious gyrations, Parker arranges for Elvis to be drafted into the Army, and while stationed in Germany, the heartthrob meets his future wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).
There’s a popular exercise in film school used to study editing technique, where the professor will show a stretch of a film and the class is asked to clap when a cut is made in the movie. If that class was shown Elvis, it would generate a steady applause so convincing that it may finally make Luhrmann happy enough to stop chasing it so desperately. Amid the plethora of triple-split screens and roving camera movements, there are some fun edits: a ferris wheel spinning out of control blended into an early hit record revolving on a phonograph was my personal favorite. But this is a chaotic scrapbook for a 20th century titan who deserves one, but doesn’t really need one either, given how much has already been said and written about him.
Elvis is a tale of two performances. Presley has been portrayed numerous times of the big screen, but it doesn’t take long for Butler to set himself apart as king of the King performances. He nails every era of Elvis’ walk of life, from the insecure greasy-haired kid still finding himself to the pelvic-thrusting showman to the aging bejeweled Vegas staple. Luhrmann doesn’t linger long on the negative aspects of Presley’s personality, but Butler is still able to find some nuance and subtlety in the role amid the hagiography. I don’t know how much of what we hear from Elvis’ voice is actually Butler singing, and after the first couple songs, I really didn’t care. The movie magic became real and the actor embodied the character so thoroughly that I didn’t question it from that moment on.
Then we have Hanks. Parker is a bizarre figure, a Dutch-born huckster whose origins are still shrouded in mystery, but whose relationship with the best-selling solo music artist of all time begs investigation. Even though Luhrmann frames this story around Parker recalling his time with Elvis during the Colonel’s final days, neither he nor Hanks get any closer to uncovering a deeper truth about this tenebrous figure. Hanks goes about Parker as a cock-eyed cross of PT Barnum by way of Dr. Demento, donning a fat suit and muttering with an unplaceable accent as he leers off-stage much less convincingly than he did in That Thing You Do! years ago. It’s a bizarre and bad performance that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at working in this otherwise down-the-line biography.
New movies coming this weekend
Coming to theaters is Thor: Love and Thunder, a Marvel superhero movie starring Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman which finds the god of thunder reteaming with Valkyrie and Korg to take on Gorr the God Butcher.
Streaming on Netflix is The Sea Beast, an animated adventure starring Karl Urban and Zaris-Angel Hator about a legendary sea monster hunter who has an epiphany when a stowaway girl befriends the most dangerous monster of all.
Also streaming on Netflix is Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between, a teen romance starring Talia Ryder and Jordan Fisher about a high school couple who go on one last epic date in both familiar and unexpected places after making a pact to break up before leaving for college.