*spoiler alert* How has it taken this long for a big, showy, definitive blockbuster biopic about Elvis Presley to come along? There have been plenty of documentaries, movies and shows, but none of the scale to be scrutinized by idol-worshippers as Bohemian Rhapsody, Ray, Walk the Line, and the rest of the canon were. Biopics are in the business of mythmaking, so perhaps he cast too long a shadow to be boxed adequately into a single film. Or we’d grown too far removed from his rebellious start to translate its intensity to unconvinced modern ears (we’re living a world of cultural freedom in part normalized by Presley’s presence after all). Maybe the story lacked the necessary last-minute comeback to temper his decline for ticket buyers. All these apprehensions aside, as far as I’m concerned, an Elvis biopic had to be one thing: Exhilarating.
After a curious framing device (on his deathbed, Presley’s fiendish manager Colonel Tom Parker begins to recount his side of a story in which the public has cast him as a villain, ala Salieri in Amadeus), and some background on the young man’s roots, we arrive at the Louisiana Hayride in time for a lanky 19-year-old to take the stage with his band, coiffed hair shuddering anxiously. Having mostly hidden his face from view, glanced from the side or beneath his pompadour, we’re introduced to Elvis as the audience is: in an eruption of excitement, movement and music begging to change the world.
Much is made of the sensual quality of Presley’s earliest performances, when teens abandoned their seats at the sight of his loose fitting pink woolen suit pants and the unhinged, wiggling hips beneath (there are no less than 6 shots in this scene that feature a close-up of the singer’s crotch), and the Colonel takes note too, leering more lustfully than the rapt crowd at the prospect of his next great attraction. Elvis’ early voice is sung by lead actor Austin Butler, who announces himself with force here, a star fully fledged in the role he was clearly born to play (most especially when the character is on stage). Regardless of whether or not Elvis will be considered ‘respectable’ enough for awards recognition, far and away from the caricature that dominates the music biopic, this is an act of disappearance.
Coming under a good deal more scrutiny is Tom Hanks as the Colonel, the Mephistophelian huckster in a broad and less than transformative performance that, looked at from a certain perspective is pretty fun. Hanks, entering elder-statesmen-hood, has given solemn old folks a shot in Finch and News of the World, it’s easier to get excited for his old kooks phase. The accent is jarring, however, and makes for a peculiar moment when Elvis is aghast to discover the Colonel and his intensely Dutch accent aren’t native to the deep South (Mijn God!).
It’s a level of camp that matches Baz Luhrmann’s earlier cinematic flamboyance. The director’s style is paired down here, but present in the film’s ostentatious look, wacky asides like the Elvis-movies pastiche and comic-book-come-to-life sequences, and particularly in its manic editing. We hardly ever stop to breathe, which can have its downsides on our ability to feel involved in characters’ inner lives, but the driving force that propels us full tilt for the 2 hour 40 minute runtime is the excellent soundtrack and -mixing (odd remixes of classics aside), blending and stitching environmental sound, elated cheers, disparate musical motifs and Elvis himself together to careen wildly through years of his career at a time in frenzied montages and eccentrically staged set-pieces.
Take Parker’s conversation winning Presley over as manager during an overnight stay at a funfair, which could have slipped by between electrifying numbers in a quiet, unassuming shot-reverse-shot. No, no, no, Luhrmann has Parker trap his target in a hall of mirrors (his face distorting much the same way the editor stretches and squeezes it during his opening monologue and dying fugue), before placing the two high above the grounds in a Ferris-wheel, as the Colonel promises to help Elvis take flight. Parker’s sense for manipulative showmanship is matched in the intoxicating filmmaking, just as the delirious freedom of Presley’s concerts come to be choreographed in the controlled chaos of a slow-motion riot or the many, many costume changes cycled through from shot to shot for the dazzling, sweat-drenched ecstasy of his stage shows. Naturally, the Ferris-wheel carries on turning the moment Parker seals the deal. Luhrmann has little interest in maintaining the humdrum verisimilitude of modern blockbuster filmmaking, and though Elvis is doomed to play out the conventional plot of the music biopic, it is pleasant to have that plot chopped up and meddled with by a filmmaker with some ideas.
Knowing the hallmarks of that conventional plot, we’re sure the fall must come, and what a fall it was. Locked into stagnation time and again by the Colonel’s financial interests, managing to escape years of kitsch and C-list movie stardom, only to be locked into a contract for a Las Vegas residency. The downside to all the merciless speed and pizazz is that the emotional content and introspection of the film get the short end of the stick. Presley’s relationship to black culture and influence is occasionally explored, even as the film frames black spaces exotically and neglects to give their characters dimensionality. Some of the more clichéd dramatic scenes aren’t exactly earned, as one revelation or omen comes along and seconds later tragedy has struck, and we’re off before too long.
Priscilla quietly grows independent, standing up for herself as the times change around her, but the weight of her departure is diminished since the movie hardly spares her any screen time before then. That’s not to say that it had an obligation to do so, but the film does seem to suggest that the darkest days of Elvis’ life were those when he followed his need for fame, love, pills (“eternity”, the Colonel posits) as those who truly cared for him died in his absence, left in the face of his masochistic excesses and grew complicit in working him beyond limit to his drug-addled end. These scenes would be far stronger were we allowed to grow attached to these people.
It’s an unfortunate weak spot, but the sense of tragedy does land in seeing the vitality of an ambitious, naïve romantic chewed up, straightened out and pushed around till it gives way to a defeated, tranquillized mess, murmuring that he has no legacy to speak of. And yet, the best moment of the film is its final scene, where Baz wisely hands the reins over to the King to close out the show himself and put those fears to rest. Elvis preaches to the converted, but it’s hard not to catch the spirit.