Film Review: Elvis (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
Nobody quite does it like Baz Luhrmann. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal preferences. It can be a good thing and a bad thing within one scene. Hell, within one shot. But even when his movies don’t quite land (like Australia and The Great Gatsby), they are never boring. And never boring goes a long way when you’re making a musician biopic in this day and age. A genre that is so typical, so stale, so expected. And Elvis Presley, too, for that matter, a performer who was rarely any of those things when allowed. The two seem like an ideal match when it comes to Hollywood.
If the weight of expectations and the potential wrath of Elvis fandom worldwide was brutal enough to steer Luhrmann away from his preferred lane of bedazzled flamboyance, then Elvis proves there was nothing to worry about. Elvis is first and foremost a Baz Luhrmann movie. Again, that will be a much bigger dealbreaker for some than one’s idea of Elvis as a musician. His 160-minute Elvis is a bejewelled agent of chaos. Like a bull in a china shop, this movie thrashes about often with reckless care for everything else going on around it. But it mostly works.
While it’s quite obvious that Luhrmann’s approach has meant some elements of Presley’s life get short-changed (his relationship with Priscilla, for instance; thankfully on the other end of the spectrum, very little time is spent on the whole bacon sandwich thing), it does mean that there is a vibrancy that puts a viewer in a certain state of mind. It is almost always Luhrmann’s desire to make the viewer feel, in a contemporary age, what the sensation of his subject would have felt like. He has once again succeeded. More or less.
We are gifted with an excellent performance by Austin Butler. He not only has the speaking voice (and the range found within it across the years) and the moves down pat, but also the singing. Due to changes in technology, Butler was tasked with rerecording many of Presley’s early music and is also allowed to have a hand at the movie’s big centrepiece moment. “If I Can Dream” will probably be Butler’s Oscar clip if he gets that far (along with the costumes, production design, editing and sound mixing, I think he will) given he handles the song with aplomb across the film’s best stretch.
It's only a shame that the screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromwell, Craig Pierce and Jeremy Doner made the quite frankly bizarre choice to centre the narrative around Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker. As he lays on his deathbed, daydreaming through morphine about his time with Elvis, Tom Hanks is plastered in prosthetics and make up. If Luhrmann could’ve gotten away with a twirling moustache, no doubt he would have given him one of those, too. Hanks is bad, but he’s made worse by this choice to make him the focus, something that only really begins to make sense in the movie’s final act and beyond Elvis’ death in the closing moments. It’s a big performance and one that doesn’t pay off. Especially when placed next to Butler, who is doing some finely modulated work as Elvis. Here is Luhrmann’s biggest mishap in his desire to be at 110% at all times, almost as if it were too late to change course once they saw what was being done.
The cast is otherwise populated with many fine actors, many of whom will be recognisable to Australian viewers. It was, of course, filmed in Australia; the knowledge of which makes the technical achievement of Catherine Martin as production and costume designer even more impressive. I suspect she will add a fifth and maybe even a sixth Oscar to her mantle for this following her winning work on Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby (she is also a producer on Elvis just to make her job even harder).
This is a strong movie. It’s not a great one like his red curtain trilogy, but it has a fire to it that is captivating. Especially in 2022 where biopics are rarely allowed to be this fantastical in their inception. It deserves to be championed for that alone. But with Butler and those techs, it proves to be a ravishing big screen experience.