Reading the reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” one would be forgiven for thinking that it must be some madly baroque spectacle of exquisite excess, the sort of thing that makes people roll their eyes — or that makes the eyes of others widen with delight — when they hear the name “Baz Luhrmann.”
In The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney writes, “How you feel about Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ will depend largely on how you feel about Baz Lurhmann’s brash, glitter-bomb maximalism.” In Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins calls the film “a brash, overwhelming experience. It’s a carnival in movie form,” while The New York Times’ A.O. Scott says, “All that satin and rhinestone, filtered through Mandy Walker’s pulpy, red-dominated cinematography, conjures an atmosphere of lurid, frenzied eroticism. You might mistake this for a vampire movie.” In my own review of “Elvis,” I, too, danced the Baz Luhrmann jig, calling it “a spangly pinwheel of a movie that converts the Elvis saga we all carry around in our heads into a lavishly staged biopic-as-pop-opera.” If I had read those reviews and was going to see “Elvis” this weekend, I would probably expect to be strapping myself into an unrelenting roller-coaster ride of sequined extravagance.
There are ways you could say the movie lives up to that. “Elvis” kicks off with a 10-minute prelude of split-screen imagery that leaps ahead to Elvis in Las Vegas in the ’70s. The flamboyant virtuosity of the filmmaking gives you a contact high. Sitting through this fanfare, I thought, “Yes! Great! More!” (A trio of words that might be Baz Lurhmann’s middle names.)
About 45 minutes later, the film showcases the hip-swiveling earthquake that was Elvis’s one-man sexual revolution. It does so by jacking up the intensity, turning the music into a sonic collage of desire and release (“Well since my baby left me…,” “But don’t you, step on my blue suede shoes!” “Any way you do…”) that carries, at moments, the grinding sensuality of a rock-show-meets-strip-club diorama. The screams we see and hear in Elvis’s audience aren’t just teenybopper screams. They’re grown women erupting as if they’d just thrown off the shackles of 4,000 years. Given all this, you might conclude that “Elvis,” whatever one’s judgment of it, is every inch a Baz Luhrmann movie.
Except that it’s not. Not really. I mean, not really.
“Elvis” is decorated with Baz touches: the outrageously bejeweled Warner Bros. logo at the start, the montage that transforms Elvis’s life with Priscilla and the Memphis Mafia in the ’60s into a kind of pastel Elvis movie, and the wicked gleam of Tom Hanks’ performance as Col. Tom Parker. (Speaking in his Dutch-meets-Middle-American-carny-barker accent, Hanks reminded me of no one so much as the aging Nazi villain portrayed, with a greedy leer, by Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man.”)
But if you look past those knowingly overheated touches, most of the two hours and 39 minutes of “Elvis” is a relatively straight Elvis Presley biopic. I’m a big fan of music biopics, and many of the ones I love — like “Get on Up” or “The Buddy Holly Story” — are, in form and spirit, films of sturdy conventionality. So if “Elvis,” as a movie, has its roots in conventional dramatic soil, you might well ask: What would be the problem with that?
The problem is that Luhrmann, as exciting a filmmaker as he can be (at his best, he’s a fevered wizard of spangly cinematic voodoo), is not an artist who excels in the arena of conventional storytelling. The way this plays out in “Elvis” is that the entire first half of the movie, as I stated in my review, is less a dramatization of Elvis Presley’s life than a kind of skittery illustration of it. We keep being told things about Elvis — the way his musical mojo was defined by his Southern immersion in the blues and gospel, the pressure put on him to trim back the sexual flamboyance of his stage persona. But the scenes aren’t written so that we experience them from Elvis’s point-of-view. Instead, we’re peering into the movie, more occupied than immersed, tethered to Hanks’ narration but watching it all from a distance.
That’s why Austin Butler’s performance feels remote in the first half. The actor, I’m sorry, fundamentally lacks Elvis’ flashing-eyed danger (that’s one reason his performance gets so much better once the film enters the late ’60s, when Elvis no longer was dangerous). And if you leave aside the caffeinated cutting, much of the first half of “Elvis” has the one-thing-after-another prosaic vibe of an energized-but-not-better-than-that TV-movie.
Over the next few months, and heading into awards season, viewers and critics alike will debate whether “Elvis,” as a drama, is good or bad or just okay or “Oscar-worthy” or better than “Bohemian Rhapsody” or not as good as “Ray,” or whatever. It’s my feeling that the movie, scattered and imperfect as it is, is truly something to see. That’s why I’m not surprised that it enjoyed a solid opening weekend and why I’m cheered by the prospect of its success. “Elvis” is an event, a surfacy but coruscating vision of the life of one of the five most important cultural figures of the last 100 years. Why shouldn’t viewers all over the world flock to see it? I hope they do.
But having seen the movie twice now, here’s what haunts me. I wanted “Elvis” to be great — a drama that would tap the mythology of Elvis, and the reality of Elvis, in a way that would leave audiences shattered and spellbound. In the 30 years that he’s been directing movies, Baz Luhrmann, to me, has made one masterpiece: “Moulin Rouge!” It’s the visionary musical of our time and a movie of singular audacious grandeur. To watch it is to swoon with sadness and rapture — to live, for two hours, inside a trippy jukebox heaven. And “Elvis,” I think, might have been a greater movie if Luhrmann had abandoned his foldout version of biopic realism and, instead, gone full fever dream. And, more than that, gone full musical fever dream. For the oddest thing about “Elvis” is that though it’s dotted with compelling musical moments, it doesn’t deliver the catharsis of a great rock musical.
Take the montage that compresses Elvis’s movie career — and most of the ’60s, right up until the taping of his 1968 comeback special — into just two minutes of screen time. It’s clever; Luhrmann devised a way to streamline Elvis’s story. But to me he does it in a way that’s false to the Baz Luhrmann aesthetic. Why not spend some time reveling in the kitschy glory of “Viva Las Vegas” — and use Elvis’ movie career as a way to show how Col. Parker was already draining the life out of him? I think it’s odd that “Elvis” devotes so much time to the taping of the 1968 special, all to make the point that Parker wanted Elvis to wear a Christmas sweater and sing Christmas songs — while Elvis, instead, was undermining the colonel by getting back in touch with his roots. This section is fun as TV sociology, but once again we’re outside of Elvis. We don’t feel connected to his soul until the film arrives in Vegas, at which point it totally takes off.
Suddenly, Elvis is in his glory as a white-suited, karate-chopping, five-rings-on-his-fingers rock ‘n’ roll showbiz king. But he’s also in prison, with the colonel as his evil warden, who has chained him to a contract that will turn him into a pill-popping zombie (and therefore, yes, the colonel really did kill him). In its final third, “Elvis” ascends. It’s almost like this is where the movie really starts. The “Unchained Melody” scene at the end is nothing short of haunting.
What I really wish Luhrmann would have done, though, is to treat Elvis’ life in a more radical, stylized, Baz-tastic way. He could have turned “Jailhouse Rock” (a key moment for Elvis, though it isn’t even in the movie) into a show-stopping epiphany, and if the Elvis-the-pelvis-introduces-sex-to-America revolution of 1956 had been staged as less of a TV-biopic news-flash montage, complete with fake scandals (as if the real ones weren’t vivid enough), and as more of a delirious musical number, the songs could have been taken to a new level. It might even have felt like we hadn’t heard them before. Instead, Elvis’s music, right up until the Vegas section, gets blended into a kind of Elvis Presley smoothie.
If it sounds like I’m asking “Elvis” to be a different kind of movie than it is — well, I am. But here’s the thing: Lurhmann already eased down the rabbit hole of that kind of movie when he turned Col. Parker into a demonically accented, twinkly-eyed scamp of betrayal. Hanks has been unfairly savaged for his performance, which is a knowing piece of operatic villainy. But if that’s how you’re going to go, why not shoot the works? If “Elvis” had been a psychedelic rock dream play, like “Moulin Rouge!” with the King at its center, it might have been even more of a must-see. As it is, the movie, while eminently worth seeing, spends too much of its running time caught between a rock myth and a Baz place.