Director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic might as well have been called “Parker,” as in Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker. While playing fast and loose with the facts of Presley’s life and career, Luhrmann made the unusual decision to give Parker near-equal status in his gaudy, impressionistic extravaganza.
The good news is that Austin Butler delivers a passable impression as The King. Apparently, he even sings a lot of the vocals himself (augmented at times by digital blending of the Presley tracks). The screenplay doesn’t afford Butler the opportunity to develop much of a characterization. His performance is serviceable, good even, but isn’t going to join the ranks of Jamie Foxx in Ray, Val Kilmer in The Doors, or Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up. It’s not really Butler’s fault. He looks and sounds good during the performance scenes, but offstage he isn’t able to mold an underwritten role into anything resembling a human being.
Elvis is most effective as it delivers a breathless tour of Presley’s formative years. Showing the young Presley passing out after catching the spirit at a tent revival is speculative at best, but it helps present him as an artist possessed by the music. Recent years have seen the culture police attempting to discount Presley as a culture appropriator and stylistic plagiarist. Kudos to Luhrmann and company for going to some lengths to show Presley as an amalgamation of a variety of diverse influences. If anything, there could’ve been at least a cursory hat-tip to Presley’s gospel and country roots in addition to the included Black artists, B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), and others.
The fatal flaw here is something of a double-edged sword: both the presentation of Col. Tom Parker as a Grimms’ Fairy Tales-styled, evil-minded villain and the casting of Tom Hanks to portray said-dastard. Let’s not mince words, this is Hanks’ worst performance by quite a wide margin. His Parker is portrayed as perpetually peering around corners and lurking in shadows. Even with the prosthetics, fat suit, and indeterminate accent (Parker was born in the Netherlands, but by all accounts, exhibited only a trace of such a Low Countries accent), it always feels like nothing more than Tom Hanks hamming it up, chewing scenery.
Anyone seeking a traditional biopic should look elsewhere. The lack of narrative focus wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but Luhrmann’s Elvis is really more about the director’s own style. The anachronistic soundtrack intrusions and aggressively flashy visuals betray Luhrmann’s true ambition. This isn’t the story of Elvis Presley, when it comes down to it. The flimsy narrative is just a framework for Luhrmann to drape his flamboyant extravagances over. Fans of Luhrmann may rejoice, but fans of Elvis should skip and rewatch any of the existing documents featuring the genuine article. And neophytes would do well to watch real concerts and even some of Presley’s stronger films like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole.
The Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Elvis Blu-ray has a handful of featurettes that predictably (and understandably, I guess) focus on the Luhrmann production rather than the ostensible subject of the film. You might expect “Bigger Than Life: The Story of Elvis” to look a bit at The King’s life and times, but it’s just a typical hype reel to promote the movie. “Rock and Roll Royalty: The Music and Artists Behind Elvis” sounds promising, but at seven minutes it couldn’t be more superficial. There are also similarly brief featurettes that shine a spotlight on the costumes and locations seen in the movie.
It’s almost a shame that Luhrmann didn’t turn Presley into as much of a cartoon as Parker, that way his Elvis could’ve potentially been enjoyed as a camp spectacle. Instead, he wastes Butler’s obviously sincere efforts. Better fictionalized options: John Carpenter’s Elvis (starring Kurt Russell), the ill-fated 1990 TV series Elvis (starring Micheal St. Gerard), or even the 1988 Chris Columbus-directed fantasy-drama Heartbreak Hotel (starring David Keith). But in the end, there’s really no reason to accept substitute for the real thing, given the wealth of Presley material readily available.