I approached Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic, Elvis, with much antipathy and temerity. I have never liked Luhrmann’s work and find his adaptations of Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby to be grotesque misrepresentations of two literary classics. What would Luhrmann’s patented, ADHD-influenced, “Who cares about facts when there’s EDITING TO BE DONE?” style do to the Presley legend? I am actually a big Elvis fan. How bad could this film be?
Turns out, plenty bad.
I do have it on good authority, though, that Elvis and the Colonel actually rode Ferris Wheels together all the time.
It bothered me that not one song is performed all the way through. This movie is 150 minutes long... surely there was time! “All Shook Up” clocks in at a peppy 1:52. Viva Las Vegas is a mere 85 minutes long but finds time to include 12 full-length songs.
Here’s an idea: instead of going with Luhrmann’s hyperbolic, short-attention-span-baiting production strategy, why not tell the life story of Elvis in the style of one of his own ’60s movies? That would at least be fun. After watching the film, I realized that everything Luhrmann dismisses with a quick montage, I would have dwelled on; everything he dwells on (the turgid melodrama of Elvis’s final years, for example) I would dismiss with a quick montage. I may be the prophesied “Anti-Luhrmann” of which the dark legends speak when summoned from the bowels of Dark Graceland.
The performances in the film are variable. When the film was released, debate on the Twitter machine raged about whether Austin Butler’s turn as the title character was a full-blown dramatic performance or the workmanlike mimicry of your average Elvis impersonator. I tend to favor the latter, though the film does Butler no favors by focusing so relentlessly on only 1) young “Louisiana Hayride” Elvis and 2) middle-period, icon Elvis. We only get one scene with 3) Fat Vegas Elvis, and that features Elvis immobile at the piano, shown only from the waist up. I guess Luhrmann wanted all the fat suit glory to go to star Tom Hanks, who acquits himself nicely as the Colonel, though I could have done without his hyper-charged accent. (“Nobody talks like that!” as Jack Lemmon famously shouted in Some Like It Hot.)
Most other characters in the film are extras or ciphers. Elvis’s father Vernon could have been played by a department store mannequin. Jimmy Rogers, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and B.B. King are played by actors who look and sound nothing like the original performers. For a few moments, I was about to applaud the filmmakers for gender neutral casting because I thought their Little Richard was being played by a woman, but I was wrong. The only other performer to stand out in this tub of neon goo is Helen Thomson, who not only looks exactly like Elvis’s mom, Gladys, but brings a heavy dose of sadness to the role. I always thought Elvis’s mom seemed ineffably sad.
I hope the filmmakers behind 2007’s Walk Hard take particular delight in this film. Elvis achieves the dubious distinction of including tropes that Walk Hard parodied 15 years ago. We get the scene of female fans in a foaming frenzy during Elvis’s first concert appearance; a roadhouse where the African-American patrons come to dance erotically; a record producer giving Elvis “one more chance” to impress him; several versions of “You don’t want nothing to do with this shit;” and most famously, Elvis performing one song at the end that “will sum up his entire life and career.” It’s easy to parody a film that exists; Walk Hard succeeded in parodying a film that hadn’t yet been made.
And of course, in a bilious trope that is fast becoming a cliché in new Hollywood biopics, the real Elvis is trotted out in archival footage in the film’s final moments to... I don’t know. Remind the audience that Elvis was real? Give the audience some comparison fodder to judge Austin Butler’s performance in the title role? Wring some easy tears from Elvis fans by reminding us that he died? It’s weird. It’s like after subjecting us to an almost three-hour pandemonium shadow show, the filmmakers feel bad about what they have done and the extent to which they have misrepresented Elvis’s legacy, and decide to give the real Elvis a final bow...
But the real Elvis left their building a long, long time ago.