Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. releases the film in theaters on Friday, June 24.
“It doesn’t matter if you do 10 stupid things so long as you do one smart one,” Colonel Tom Parker advises us near the start of Baz Luhrmann’s utterly deranged musical biopic about the King of Rock & Roll, but even a ratio that forgiving would still leave “Elvis” roughly 370 “smart ones” short. If only this 159-minute eyesore — a sadistically monotonous super-montage in which a weird Flemish guy manipulates some naïve young greaser over and over and over again until they both get sad and die — were gracious enough to be as short in any other respect.
Luhrmann may be one of the most irrepressible maximalists the movies have ever known, and his new opus is perhaps the most visually anarchic Hollywood film since the Wachowskis’ 2008 “Speed Racer.” But it’s hard to find even ironic enjoyment in something this high on its own supply; something much less interested in how its namesake broke the rules than it is in how its director does, and something tirelessly incapable of finding any meaningful overlap between the two.
Indeed, “Elvis” is so adoring of its style and so disinterested in its subject that “Baz” would have been a more fitting title for it. Why does a deliriously basic musical biopic spinning through time at 60 million RPM take longer to give Elvis Presley the “Bohemian Rhapsody” treatment than Luhrmann needed to adapt “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Great Gatsby,” or the entire continent of “Australia”? Because the “Moulin Rouge!” director — despite his obvious affection for Elvis, and his good-faith effort to worship the rock god as he saw fit — can’t help but leverage Presley’s iconography in a similarly self-serving way as Parker exploited his talent.
Unmoored from the narrative guardrails of a Puccini opera, a Shakespeare tragedy, or one of the tightest novels of the 20th century, Luhrmann is free to remix Elvis’ life and times into a Las Vegas revue that spotlights the filmmaker’s singular genius while also painfully enabling his own addiction to excess. Even in tribute, this maddening jukebox musical only sees Presley as a means to an end — as a hip-shaking puppet on a string. Which perhaps explains why Luhrmann was compelled to make Colonel Tom Parker the main character of his Elvis movie, “Elvis,” which the trailers had suggested was about someone named Elvis.
This may not be the stupidest of the stupid things that “Elvis” does, but it’s the stupid thing that no amount of “smart ones” can possibly balance out. Luhrmann loves himself a narrator — a layer of distance between opulence and tragedy — and theoretically, there’s no reason why one of pop culture’s most pivotal rise-and-fall stories couldn’t be told through the eyes of the Mephisto-like Svengali who launched Presley into the air and left him there in a permanent state of vertigo.
Sure, on paper that sounds roughly as appealing as a Britney Spears biopic narrated by her father. And sure, onscreen it’s even worse. But it isn’t impossible to see the appeal of placing an iconoclastic anti-authoritarian like Elvis in the shadow of the man who controlled him. Even the King bowed to someone, and Luhrmann’s dizzying script (co-written by Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner, and Craig Pearce) frequently returns to the idea that Presley’s life was caught in the crossfire between two different Americas: One gyrating towards freedom, and the other snuffing it out.
The problem here is that Luhrmann’s Colonel Parker — Tom Hanks in a “true true” performance defined by a fat suit, a fake nose, and an accent that I can only describe as the “Kentucky Fried Goldmember” — is possibly the most insufferable movie character ever conceived. The guy makes Jar-Jar Binks seem like Elliott Gould in “The Long Goodbye.” It’s as if Luhrmann watched Hanks’ performance from “The Ladykillers” and thought: “OK, what if that, but times 100 and for almost three entire hours?”
“Elvis” — and I wish I were joking about this — is presented as the dream that Colonel Parker has before dying. Kind of. Honestly, it’s hard to say where you are or in what context during a movie that spins in circles like a roulette wheel (often all too literally) and only slows down for a small handful of proper scenes along the way. One second, Colonel Parker is waddling around a Las Vegas hospital as an old man, and the next, we’re in full “Nightmare Alley” territory as the music impresario rolls through some hick fairground and hears a hot new song on the radio while looking for his next carnival geek.
Too bad Black acts don’t sell. Wait a minute! [the camera zooms in on Parker’s neck sweat, spins 360 degrees, speed-ramps through several different frame rates, invents six entirely new aspect ratios, and then lands on the prosthetic nose that only skirts anti-Semitism because no one knows for sure if the Colonel was Jewish] “he’s whhhhyyyyyiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittteee!?” [cash registers, fireworks, time moves in 12 directions at once, you see the moment of your own birth and death unfolding on a Brian de Palma split-screen]. Cut to: Elvis playing “That’s All Right” in an oversized pink suit as a concert for some local teenage girls suddenly turns into that scene from “Scanners.”
That won’t be the last time Luhrmann acknowledges his subject’s oft-discussed role in the history of American race relations — just wait until the feverish sequence where Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is framed as something that personally happened to Elvis Presley, and made him feel very sad — but it’s safe to assume that “Elvis” is less interested in the cultural etymology of Presley’s music than it is in the way that stiff ribbons of jet-black hair falls across Austin Butler’s face every time he sweet talks into a microphone.
In fairness to Luhrmann, it’s quite a sight to behold. Butler’s immaculate Presley imitation would be the best thing about this movie even if it stopped at mimicry, but the actor does more than just nail Presley’s singing voice and stage presence; he also manages to defy them, slipping free of iconography and giving the film an opportunity to create a new emotional context for a man who’s been frozen in time since before Luhrmann’s target audience was born.
It’s an opportunity the director rejects at every turn. His Elvis never becomes his own man. Instead, he evolves from an avatar for post-war America into a helpless addict trapped in a golden cage. He doesn’t have a whit of agency in either mode; pin-balling through the years and bouncing from one superimposed newspaper headline to the next, Elvis doesn’t come off like someone who reshaped the 20th century so much as he does someone who watched it faint around him and then force him out. No wonder Elvis and Forrest Gump seem to keep crossing paths.
Rather than carving a meaningful path to guide Elvis through history, Luhrmann simply floats him through the years on a raft of non-stop music that bumps into an endless series of biopic clichés at light speed into the next until it finally capsizes a few decades later. The action moves so fast, and with so little weight, that I literally missed Elvis’ mom dying.
Then again, I hardly ever clocked her being alive in the first place. I only flagged his dad because Vernon is played by Luhrmann regular Richard Roxburgh, while Olivia DeJonge’s Priscilla skips from army brat to shrewish mom without stopping to land anywhere in between. At some point they mention Graceland, so there’s probably a scene where they buy it? I’d assume I just forgot a detail like that in the blur of it all if not for the fact that Elvis’ entire film career is squeezed into a single line of Colonel Parker narration that I transcribed verbatim for my sins: “I made him the highest-paid actor in Hollywood history, and we had a lot of fun.” Terrible food, and such small portions.
The songs themselves can be thrilling when they’re anchored in reality — the late scene in which a sequined Elvis powers his way through “Suspicious Minds” is almost strong enough to give the character his own soul — but most of them come from nowhere, floating at random out of the ether as if from a broken jukebox. There’s nary a single moment in the movie of Elvis actually creating anything; he’s just a sexy oracle, receiving music from the collective unconscious and shivering it out through his body.
It’s as if Presley’s songs have always existed, and Luhrmann’s job is simply to make them new again. The filmmaker’s anachronistic flair has always been a fundamental part of his appeal, but here — listening to Doja Cat rap over “Viva Las Vegas,” which sounds pretty good — it’s hard not to suspect that his orgiastic exuberance might stem from a lack of faith in a modern audience’s ability to connect to this subject matter. If Luhrmann trusted us to care about Elvis Presley, his film would have found the confidence to try. Instead, Colonel Parker becomes the ultimate scapegoat; it’s OK that Elvis doesn’t have any discernible identity because this is a movie about the cartoonish chicken salesman who stole it from him.
Luhrmann’s sensory overload has resulted in some of the most swooningly electric moments in modern cinema, from the fish tank sequence in “Romeo + Juliet” to the elephant medley in “Moulin Rouge!” and that fantastic party sequence in “The Great Gatsby,” but the hyper-romantic energy of those films helped braid the present into the past in a way that made them both feel more alive. “Elvis” discovers no such purpose. It finds so little reason for Presley’s life to be the stuff of a Baz Luhrmann movie that the equation ultimately inverts itself, leaving us with an Elvis Presley movie about Baz Luhrmann. They both deserve better.
“Elvis” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters on Friday, June 24.