Elvis ★

Part of the allure of a Baz Luhrmann film is its radiating artificiality, created by a primary emphasis on the glitz and glamor of a production and its trappings. It works best when plot structure can be an afterthought, such as the instantly recognizable woes of Shakespeare. But when Luhrmann attempts the biopic, especially one that centers a figure just far enough removed from modern pop culture to be reduced to a quaff and jumpsuit, there just isn’t enough room for the full intricacies of the King’s (Austin Butler) career.

Quick to identify the devil in this story, Luhrmann hands the mic first to Elvis’s longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a crook who’s hit rock bottom and has one last chance to give his perspective on the King’s rise to fame and subsequent fall. 

The film and its camera is constantly on the move, trucking along a music history timeline that drops Presley right in the center, from visiting Beale Street to a rendition of ‘That’s Alright Mama’ that fuses his influences of Gospel and the Blues. Luhrmann does not give any voice or depth to the Black artists that supported his meteoric rise to fame, such as Little Richard and B.B. King, and declines to examine the mixed legacy the “King” has with Black musical influences. 

Setting Elvis at the height of these genres while also foreshadowing the later treatment of pop idols is a miscalculated choice when the only voices that can represent this position are Presley’s and Parker’s. Instead of digging into the ramifications of his career, which might be better suited for the time separating this film and the years gone to examine his legacy, Luhrmann eventually has to get back to the biopic bullet points: death of mother, meeting Priscilla, and Vegas comeback, among others.

This placation to the conventions of a useless genre for this kind of complicated figure is frustrating when Butler plays Elvis so, so well. It is a complete surrender to the character and his sensuality that makes scenes on stage with pelvic thrusts and women shouting work so realistically to advance the theory of a sparked sexual revolution and a once-in-a-lifetime star.

But Luhrmann is too focused with the myth of Elvis, and while the King’s charisma and erotic showmanship are antagonistic to the director’s flat and God-like vision of the singer, Butler does not get the chance to capture Elvis’s other sides that truly encapsulate the woes and sins of the man as he lived.

Like Parker, Luhrmann works here to sell Elvis as this polished gem of musical mastery and handsome swagger, so as not to draw away from the lights, colors and costumes that shadow his real legacy. It is pointless and trite, and leaves you wondering not about Luhrmann’s creation, but what could’ve been accomplished without it.

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