Elvis is Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley and it’s cradle to grave but told at such a gallop you’ll be willing it to stay put even if it’s just for two minutes. You may even be begging: Baz, come on, just hold still. But no, we’re off again. I’ve had fever dreams that have been less delirious. But on the plus side, even if it’s never deep or enlightening, it has a fizzing energy, and because it doesn’t dwell on anything, we don’t dwell on fat, sad Elvis at the end. Which is a relief.
The film opens as it means to go on. That is, flashily. Even the Warner Brothers logo (WB) is sparklingly rhinestoned. The framing device is Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks with a horrific combover, a ton of padding, and those big trousers Robert Maxwell used to wear, and Ian Paisley too. When we first meet him Elvis is already dead and Parker is old, sick, hooked up to a morphine drip, wandering the slot machines in an empty Las Vegas casino. He is not the villain of the story as popularly supposed, he says. ‘I didn’t kill Elvis. I made him,’ he says. He wants to be exonerated. There’s the suggestion of a fresh narrative but as that never comes along – Parker, the film shows, exploited Elvis mercilessly and fraudulently – you do wonder what the point is.
We spool back to the beginning and a split-screen montage that shows us Parker starting out as a carnival-barker showman in Holland while Elvis is growing up dirt-poor in a black community. His early musical influences were gospel and blues and we see him sneak into a revival tent where he doesn’t so much appreciate the music as fuse with it. Skip forward and he’s now grown, played by Austin Butler. It’s a tall order playing the most beautiful, most sexy, most culturally iconic, most instinctively talented rock artist ever – in my opinion – but he does capture something. The hips, certainly. The hips are electric. The physical musicality is there. As for the singing, Butler’s voice is melded with tapes of Elvis, which seems wise. It is a charismatic and entertaining performance but it never feels that real. This Elvis doesn’t give off any sense of danger and we never get to look into his soul. Throughout, he’s just a simple fella who wants to sing the music he loves, while Parker must work him to death to play off his gambling debts. It doesn’t ever deepen our understanding or add new layers of meaning.
As well as the montage and split-screen, there are many other conceits. A newspaper photograph may start talking. A portion of Elvis’s childhood is told as a comic strip. We hit all the necessary marks: the Elvismania, girls fainting and throwing their knickers, upsetting the moral majority, the two years of military service in Germany, the bubblegum Hollywood films. If this had been a Peter Morgan script rather than a Luhrmann one, we’d have focused on one small window of time like, say, the moment when Elvis stood up to Parker – yay! – and subverted a Christmas TV special. He’d have used that to show us something about the essence of Elvis and the hold Parker had over him. But this is scattergun. Elvis meets, woos and marries Priscilla in two minutes flat. Their relationship was complicated. She was 14 when they met. He was constantly unfaithful. He could not have sex with women who were mothers, as she discovered after she’d had their daughter. But none of this is included or even alluded to.
But it does fizz along, and even with a two-hour-and-40-minute run time it’s never dull, and we don’t dwell on Elvis at the end. Thank God.
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