Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is the “Titanic” of musical biographies, a fantasia on its subject that synthesizes all that we know and much that we feel and wish about its iconic subject in a swirl of images, impressions and sounds surrounding Elvis Presley’s meteoric rise and tragic fall.
It’s a slick surface gloss that conflates timelines and bends history to its will, playing up the cultural appropriation of “a white man singing like a Black man” as something that can be celebrated within its revolutionary, culture-shifting context.
By telling this story through the filter of the greatest carnie “snow-man” of them all, the Dutch scoundrel who billed himself as “Col. Tom Parker,” the script plays up a Deal with the Devil without a “Crossroads.” And while that fits with the narrative of Elvis as County Boy Savant, this isn’t an idiot Elvis. He has more agency than his most venal biographers suggest, less than the most worshipful could hope.
Glancing at the Mason-Dixon Lines reviews of this epic, it’s obvious the film is dividing along cultural schisms similar to those infamous “Elvis” stamps of the last century. Some are going to grouse that the racial liberties are too generous, that leaving out the “grooming” of the rock star turned U.S. Air Force enlistee who met his future bride Priscilla when she was 15, and that there’s no peanut butter’n’banana sandwiches of “Fat Elvis,” that the picture doesn’t go deep enough.
To that I’d add that I’d have preferred more real archival audio and news footage — especially of the news events that Forrest Gump’d past Presley’s Mid-Century Modern life — and the limited star power in the supporting cast is worth a quibble.
But for a casual fan or a fanatic, this is an immersive “Elvis” worth embracing — art and artful and Luhrmann unconventional, a “Bourne” thriller blur of impressions and jogged memories hanging on two titanic performances — Tom Hanks as a twinkling/conniving Tom Parker and veteran bit player Austin Butler (“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”) in a breakout turn as The Once and Future King.
Casting Hanks was the masterstroke. His lovable persona softens the villainy of Parker and lets us reclaim the unlikely partnership — with all its missteps, blunders and penny-ante pettiness — that made Elvis Presley a Culture Disrupter for the Ages.
“It don’t matter if you do ten stupid tings, if you do vun smart vun,” Hanks purrs in the Colonel’s dropout Dutch.
In focusing on Parker’s memories and his self-serving point of view, the film skips by Red Letter Dates in Elvis’s history — meeting Sam Phillips (Josh McConville, a near dead-ringer) and “the boys,” Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana, Presley’s original rockabilly band. There’s no “Sam and Elvis discover his sound” or much emphasis at all on recording work, no “Elvis screen test,” “Elvis dating Natalie Wood” and making a movie with Ann-Margret.
What is new and thrillingly fresh is seeing the impact the guy had on audiences, particularly the shrieking and swooning females, whose mothers has shrieked and swooned over “Frankie” Sinatra, through the jaundiced sparkle of chancer Parker’s eyes.
Framed within Parker’s late life infamy and illness, a sick old man traveling through his past, Scrooge-like, in a hospital gown, the story blows up in a brilliant first act as Parker, managing Canadian Country crooner Hank Snow, adds this “sensation” to the tour at the behest of Snow’s hip son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to the growing befuddlement of the “I’ve Been Everywhere (Man)” composer Snow (David Wenham of “300,” terrific).
To the carny barker Parker, here was the latest thing, an electrifying phenomenon who only needed “a snow man” like himself to pull off the ultimate “snow job” on the rubes — America’s pop-music mad youth.
“Ve are a team” Parker stresses to Presley, from their first “no lawyers needed” contract (Helen Thompson and Richard Roxburgh plays Gladys and Vernon Presley) to the “worked him like a mule” Vegas years and Presley’s bloated, addicted and lonely downfall.
Luhrmann weaves a collage of sights, sounds and (sometimes archival footage) memories to skim over events that Parker wouldn’t have had first-hand knowledge of — the kid’s childhood exposure to the Blues and Black Gospel singing tent revivals, his working poor connection to African American culture, his first breaks and his early meetings with the under-age Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).
The early acts sprint by as Parker recalls on-stage moments when Presley figured out his hold on the audience, the blowback as racist politicians and media folk tried to sanitize and whitewash his act and create a “New Elvis,” and Presley’s self-aware moment of revolt, on stage at a charity performance, that cemented his status as a legend-in-the-making and hero to a generation.
Maybe it’s Baz and not the Col. who figures the influence and mentorship of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr., fatherly, canny and wise) was key. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking or exaggerated, but like every assertion in this time-and-event conflating musical, it’s factually defensible.
Luhrmann never lets us forget that he’s the guy who made “Moulin Rouge!” tarted-up “Romeo + Juliet” and contemporized “The Great Gatsby,” using showy IMPORTANT MOMENT graphics, split screens and dissolves and superimpositions to put Butler in situations and “events,” or simply have the iconic Elvis morph into this fictional Butler Elvis. The soundscape is similarly multilayered, with hip hop and blues joining Presley hits in a glorious collage.
Butler, as Elvis, gets across how electric the “comeback special” was, and Luhrmann and the screenwriters make certain how determined Parker was to blow it.
But the filmmaker identifies enough with Parker in that he serves up a hustler/showman’s story of Elvis, the truth sprinkled with a generous dusting of humbug.
Butler manages to capture the look and mimic the sound of Presley to an uncanny degree. The playfulness, vulnerability and naivete are here, while the lifelong lack of sophistication, the “country boy” corniness, is downplayed. He’s very good, not quite Kurt Russell TV-movie Elvis magnetic, but close.
Hanks, transformed by makeup and prosthetics into a roly poly, cigar-chomping con artist, uses his “loveable” baggage wisely, letting us see the darkness and appreciate the devilment in the old rascal Parker.
And who’s to say that the villain’s point of view isn’t worth hearing out? “I didn’t kill Elvis, I made Elvis,” makes sense, especially within the long, sad history of American celebrity that goes sour, fame that devours and adulation that drives icons to their early graves.
“Elvis” works, often brilliantly and always beautifully, a musical bio-pic that’s a little bit “Ray” and “I Walk the Line,” with hints of “Get on Up” “Judy” and “Rocket Man.” It can be frustrating, like the man himself. And who’s to say if its appeal won’t be limited generationally, racially or geographically?
But it doesn’t matter if you’re in the “Fat Elvis,” “‘Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Elvis” or even “racist Elvis” camp. Luhrmann’s here to remind us all of the myth, the moment and the man who seized it and shifted world culture like few figures in history, and of the oddball Dutchman, the not-exactly “silent” partner who made it all happen, sometimes in spite of himself.
Rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking
Cast: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luke Bracey, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Roxburgh and David Wenham.
Credits: Directed by Baz Luhrmann, scripted by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:39