By turns astonishing and exhausting, Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is a tacky, towering monolith of gaudy overkill and excess — as any film about Elvis Presley should rightfully be. But it’s also a movie about an idea. Musical biopics are a dime a dozen these days, with even the better ones serving as family-authorized brand extensions crammed into a carefully constricted formula. Outrageous and absurd as it often is, Luhrmann’s film isn’t as concerned with the facts of Elvis Presley’s life so much as with what he meant to the world. It’s a movie about a myth, one in which the singer represents a dream of liberation — musical, sexual, racial — and how that dream was corrupted and commodified by a bevy of big business hucksters and carny-barking capitalists sociopathically sucking every last dollar dry, until the star degenerated into a druggy, bloated parody of his former promise, catatonic in front of the television. It is the story of America.
If you think I’m getting a little grandiose here, just wait until you see the film — in which even the Warner Bros. logo is encrusted with jewels. The saga spills out as the morphine-induced, deathbed rantings of Elvis’ longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker, played as a self-delighted, Mephistophelean sea turtle by Tom Hanks under a mountain of prosthetics and a Dr. Evil accent. Parker wanders the empty casino floors in a hospital johnny dragging an I.V. behind him, confiding in us a transparently self-aggrandizing tale of how he discovered this dirt poor Tupelo mama’s boy on the carnival circuit and turned him into an icon. But what we see on screen doesn’t always line up with how Parker remembers it.
Of course, if you’ve seen a Baz Luhrmann movie before, you know that a lot of things you see on screen don’t line up with anything at all. The Australian’s whirling dervish approach to cinema is an acquired taste, one that I’ve always found to be a headache up until now. (I still remember other critics laughing at me after the “Moulin Rouge!” screening because the film was such a sensory assault I left looking like I’d been mugged.) Yet Luhrmann’s garish hyperbole and penchant for overstatement might be the only way to properly convey the effect Elvis had upon audiences all over the world. The gyrating hips and shaky leg are rendered upon electric squeals of screeching guitar feedback and crash-zooming camera angles, complete with wooshing sound effects and young females shrieking in paroxysms of ecstasy. His early performances are presented like earthquakes, which in a sense, they were.
Austin Butler stars as Elvis, cutting such a convincing figure I was shocked to learn he’d previously played Tex Watson, the Manson family member “on a horsey” in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Luhrmann luxuriates in Bulter’s long-lashed, androgynous beauty, peacocking around amid the cowboys in his bright pink socks. At different points, Elvis is described as an alien, a superhero and a god — but is generally presented as a gentle, child-like being whose biggest sin is that he trusts too easily. (This is a very PG-13 portrayal of Presley’s life, with his 14-year-old girlfriend Priscilla played by Olivia DeJonge as the only adult in the room.) The film perhaps over-emphasizes Elvis’ friendships with the Beale Street musicians with whom he started out, presumably as a rebuke to those who still insist to this day that a white boy had no business singing that kind of music, no matter how much he loved it or where he grew up.
The central conflict of “Elvis” is repeated more than once — an ongoing struggle for the singer to be true to himself in spite of his manager and the merchandising money men who would rather make a mint. The entertainment industry is seen as a big machine designed to grind up artists and spit them out. (Don't think it's any accident that The Jacksons are offhandedly mentioned as possible heirs to Elvis' throne.) Whenever he’s tired of being tricked into singing to a dog in a tuxedo on television or stranded in stupid movies for nearly a decade, the picture pivots on the too-rare occasions when Elvis was able to overcome the shady operators acting against his interests and change the culture by performing from his heart. The film’s phenomenally entertaining centerpiece sequence is a ridiculously fictionalized — yet dramatically irresistible — restaging of his 1968 NBC Christmas special as an elaborate prank on the Colonel, duping the old grifter and his sponsors at the Singer Sewing Machine Company into thinking he’s going to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” and performing the civil rights anthem “If I Can Dream” instead. (None of this actually happened that way, but again, this is a movie about a myth. And it’s a kick to watch Hanks cry, “He’s not even wearing the sweater!”)
Some of Luhrmann’s cinematic flights of fancy are genuinely inspired — like compressing Presley’s wasted Hollywood years into a montage modeled on the chintzy opening credits of one of his junk movies. When “Elvis” is really cooking it’s got the hellzapoppin’ energy of one of Oliver Stone’s great 1990s freak-outs, like a family-friendly cousin to “The Doors.” Other ideas don’t come off so well, like the restless scratching and remixing of classic tunes — was Doja Cat really necessary? — and the prosthetics on Hanks become burdensome to look at after a while. It’s a clever performance, combining the grotesquerie of his character in the Coen brothers’ remake of “The Ladykillers” with the charmingly amoral record executive he played in his directorial debut, “That Thing You Do!” I just wish I could see it better beneath all that putty.
I was in the men’s room at the Coolidge a couple of weeks ago when I overheard some film students laughing about one of the more uncharitable reviews “Elvis” received following its Cannes Film Festival premiere. The piece they were quoting snarkily ridiculed Luhrmann’s stylistic flourishes, not for specific reasons, but simply as if any attempt at expressionism were itself suspect. The whole thing made me sad — not just because kids were quoting a critic who wasn’t me — but because it bums me out how boringly literal-minded so much of our mass entertainment has become, eschewing anything that could be called “overacting” and forcing a banal, television-looking “naturalism” onto even cosmic superhero adventures. So many films feel so flat and disposable, the opposite of grand.
A movie like “Elvis” wouldn’t make any sense if it were shot conventionally. It needs to risk looking ridiculous to convey the magnitude of its subject’s impact and the power of the dream therein. Even if that dream has long ago left the building.
“Elvis” is now in theaters.