Baz Luhrmann’s style is one of great energy and wild imagination that often has this surreal quality when it comes to adaptations. Whether it’s his wickedly fast-paced modern take on Romeo & Juliet or his 3D trip for The Great Gatsby, his films are visually dazzling even if they don’t bring out the best of the material. And yet his blinding blaze of music seems to work rather well for recapping the legacy of Elvis Presley.
The film begins with a rip-roaring pace that jumps all around in time. Trying to grab the steering wheel of this narrative is Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the manager of Elvis Presley. He wants to tell the “real” story of Elvis and try to clear his name of being the bad guy. He’ll do so, however, through what looks like his deathbed as his imagination sends him wandering through a casino. There’s some cleverness to this weird staging that starts with Parker trying to make his case for being a remarkable man with an eye for talent, only to end with him being a mess of debts and lies.
But his muddy hands still don’t tarnish the allure of Elvis, perfectly played by an astounding Austin Butler who can sing and dance just as well as the rock icon. He starts off as a mystery, concealed by the limits of radio and hidden behind the stage curtain that Parker aims to pull back. Once he does, he unearths a talent that would’ve made any music manager’s eyes morph into dollar signs. The moment he hits the stage and starts up that wiggling of his hips, it becomes clear he’s a star for who the women lunge towards the stage.
Parker and Presley go into business as Parker convinces the young singer that there’s money to be made. Presley, being devoted to his parents, goes along with Parker in hopes of carving out a better life for himself and his alcoholic mother. Thus begins the chaotic career of what would become the most iconic rock celebrity in pop culture history. Even at 2.5 hours, this film blazes with so much of the life of Elvis that it can be dizzying to keep up with everything from the tragic death of his mother to his marriage to his film career to his Christmas special to his drug problems.
Depending on your desire for music biopics, there’s a polarizing nature to how Luhrmann approaches this material. Personally, having endured a slew of biopics that stroll perhaps far too casually through lives of the past, it was refreshing to see such a trippy depiction. Every Elvis concert is a kaleidoscope of overlapping reactions and dialogue, always keeping up the pace and rarely slowing down. Most of the concerts contain the amazing vocals and moves of Butler, the joyous crowd reactions that jump into the frame, and Parker’s gears turning as he monologues about understanding the allure.
Perhaps it seems too on the nose considering the downfall of Elvis but this movie feels like one that was conceived and edited while under the influences of booze and drugs. In one sense, that brazen embrace of slathering this picture with popping typography, non-linear sequences, and many musical asides with clever staging that keeps piling on is a treat. The problem that comes with this is that the simpler sequences lose their impact. This leads to a lot of scenes that sadly come off like melodrama with simplistic dialogue, making the audience anxiously await the next visual effect transition or Elvis concert.
This blazing blurriness of direction, unfortunately, leaves the film’s towering ensemble in the dust. Olivia DeJonge only really comes into her own with the role of Elvis’ wife Priscilla Presley until the end of the movie. Helen Thomson gives remarkable performances as a pensive Gladys Presley, Elvis’ mother, but her presence feels so limited for a figure that became a big part of his life. There are also many actors stepping into the role of familiar music celebrities who make the best of their brief scenes that it leaves you thirsty for more. Major credit needs to be given for Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King, David Wenham as Hank Snow, Alton Mason as Little Richard, and Gary Clark Jr. as Arthur Crudup.
In its own wild ways, this Elvis biopic works more for cranking up the volume on the music and editing than adhering as close to covering all things Elvis. The Presley family certainly seems to be pleased with the picture considering how sympathetic it portrays Elvis and how vibrant it is with showcasing his music and his rebellious desires to make the world a better place. I dare say this is Luhrmann’s best film to date, where his gaudy bedazzling of the opening credits with his name plastered like royalty feels all the more fitting for this type of film.