The summer’s most anticipated “delayed by COVID” movie has arrived. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is big, glossy, rollicking, intermittently entertaining and easy to figure out.
Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) is what he is widely supposed to be—good-looking and extremely talented, but weak, almost guileless. Meanwhile his manager Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) comes across just as Elvis describes him: “a blood-suckin’ old vampire,” vigorously siphoning dollars from his client for more than 20 years. The rest is in the interpretation.
That cautionary legend is outfitted with typical Luhrmann touches (à la The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge) to frame Presley’s life and career as an instantly compelling chapter in the “primitive genius” file. What gives the tale its feel-good glow is co-writer-director Luhrmann’s insistence on the idea that Presley, a Memphis truck driver with no formal musical education, managed to channel his penchant for Black rhythm & blues—“Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason), et al.—through the filter of the white honky-tonk and rockabilly music he was raised on. In the process, he turns himself into the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis makes its hero’s inspired success look as simple as falling off a barstool.
Butler (who was recently seen as Charles Manson’s murderous acolyte Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), has the swagger and sexuality, if not exactly the sneer, of the Elvis that touched off teenage riots in Dixie and caused TV network brass to reach for the Maalox. Butler reportedly does his own singing, as well. His full-throated versions of “Trouble” and “That’s All Right” are as authoritative as a slug of bourbon and Dr. Pepper, and his hair styling bill must have run into the thousands.
Best of all, Butler’s impersonation of a ridiculously over-studied pop icon has a firm grasp of Elvis’s essential “Southern-ness.” This Elvis would rather take in a gospel tent revival or eat grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches with his bubbas than hang out with politicians and businessmen. Who cares if we never see him in engineer boots? His duck-ass do is perfect.
The pura neta of this phenomenon is that Elvis is white—and thus, safe and marketable to mainstream America. No one understands that as well as “Col. Tom Parker” (real name Andreas van Kuijk, an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands), hustler supreme. Others sold Elvis tomato-red Cadillacs and silly white leather jumpsuits; the Colonel sold him a redneck brand of immortality. The carefully calculated decision by Luhrmann and his team—a screenwriting committee of four, plus no fewer than nine producers—to install Hanks’ Col. Parker as the interlocutor of the piece doesn’t pay off, except to emphasize the gullibility and naiveté of Elvis and his fans in the hectic showbiz marketplace.
Hanks’ European lounge-lizard accent is distracting. The Colonel’s power struggle with El’s Memphis Mafia and legion of handlers gets more screen time than it probably deserves. Elvis is better imagined as a full-blown demigod magically sprung to life from the grille of a ’55 Chevy than as a gifted-yet-unsophisticated chump pumped full of Percodan.
Elvis has the same limitations as previous Luhrmann extravaganzas. It gets carried away with the obvious details at the expense of the harder-to-reach character motivations. Luhrmann’s tribute to Presley is an essay on race, class and power only at its margins, in limited doses. Quite understandably we’d much rather watch The King swing his hips in a Vegas showroom and tom-cat his way to the top of the charts. Otherwise, Elvis doesn’t tell us anything that Greil Marcus or P.F. Kluge’s novel Biggest Elvis didn’t already.
At its best, watching and listening to Elvis or any of his million imitators is a popcorn experience. Anyone who wants to take him seriously obviously goes along with the sentiments of daddy Vernon Presley (played by Australian actor Richard Roxburgh): “Ah moan trah.”