With the latest My Lawyer Will Call Your Lawyer Astrid Swan and Nick Triani dig deep into Baz Luhrmann's retelling of the lives and times of Elvis Presley
It’s been a long time since we visited a cinema together so we decided to go for the comfort of the Maxim cinema in Helsinki and Baz Luhrmann’s lurid Elvis Presley biopic. Celluloid pop-bios don’t really do it for me. For every inventive attempt such as I’m Not There or Rocketman, we also get the meat and potatoes storytelling of Bohemian Rhapsody or Walk The Line. Entertaining for sure but flat and uninspiring. Peter Jackson‘s game changing Get Back not only put a firm nail in the coffin of the talking heads documentary format, but it also revealed that watching the real thing was far more preferable than someone else’s idea of the real thing. Luhrmann has lots of ideas for sure, but I’m not sure many were relevant to Elvis Presley. If the minimum requirement of any rock-biopic is to take you back to the original music then in some ways, Luhrmann’s portrait of The King works. Sadly, Elvis fails in most other departments. It feels like Luhrmann’s late 90s visual aesthetic prevails with his incessant jump cutting, overlaying of images, Great Gatsby-like title sequences mixed with contemporary takes on Presley’s music all heavily feature. It’s giddy, overly fussy and often lacking focus. This Elvis feels like an over-the-top fan tribute to the most excessive cinema of Oliver Stone. It shares a car crash level of indecency with Stone’s The Doors movie, except that had the decency to be fun at times. Luhrmann’s Elvis is a semi-serious struggle at nearly three hours. However much he tries to inject his picture with a superficial, edited energy, it often feels like the vision of an old white man attempting to be down with the kids. But the biggest problem here is how little heart or empathy Elvis displays. Most of the characters are cardboard cut-outs and the dialogue cliché-ridden. In a key scene Presley tells his estranged wife Pricilla that he will love her forever. Sadly, we don’t care as we haven’t spent any on-screen time with this Priscilla to actually give a damn.
Even more problematic is the uneven Tom Hanks performance which dominates. Hanks as Elvis’ exploitative manager Colonel Tom Parker (The Snowman) is distinctly unlikeable on all fronts; prosthetics and an off-putting Dutch twang mean Hank’s usual charm is lost in an effort to be authentic. Making Parker the heart of Elvis is a challenge for the audience: we will never be interested in anything as dull as the inner workings of a manager. Yes, we get it, Parker was an unprincipled rogue who didn’t care about Presley’s legacy or music. Yet the more he keeps telling us he doesn’t understand Elvis Presley’s music, the more you wonder why he is in the movie. In fact, Parker having more screen time than Presley makes you wonder if Luhrmann would have been better served framing the film around the manager, because he treats his central subject as an afterthought. Austin Butler’s performance as Presley is OK, but he doesn’t have many lines here to actually bring us any kind of deep portrait of the performer. The central structure of the film revolves around a few key live performances and however well made these are (sometimes even capturing the excitement of a young Elvis), you can find the real thing online and it is much better. The lengthy re-staging of the 1968 comeback special is a case in point. Luhrmann spectacularly misses the relaxed nature of Presley’s performance here; a vital ingredient which helped Elvis not only reconnect with a musical audience 10 years after his initial peak, but showed empathy with the hippy narrative of the time. Luhrmann uses the comeback special as nothing more than a plot device to show the growing distance between Parker and Presley, missing the cultural relevance of the show altogether.
Austin Butler’s performance as Presley is OK, but he doesn’t have many lines here to actually bring us any kind of deep portrait of the performer
Despite these major flaws one can imagine a different Elvis film. On the rare occasion Luhrmann’s camera isn’t restless we can admire the amazing period detail. Butler’s Elvis is slightly feminised, sporting make-up during his early break-through, a sexual being attractive to all genders. There are hints attempting to explore the deep relationship between Elvis and his mother (gamely played by Helen Thomson), but like his camera, Luhrmann is too restless to afford us any real insight. Presley’s immersion in Black music and culture, so essential in his development is represented here as an almost tokenistic and patronising nod, exemplified by an implied deep friendship with BB King (the only Black character given effective screen time). The same could be said for the real life Republican Presley’s conversion in Luhrmann’s eyes into a conscientious civil rights sympathiser. One could also suggest that the whole #metoo movement hasn’t had any impact on Luhrmann as women are rendered almost wordless in this film; subservient sexual beings, baggage to the trappings of rock’n’roll fame and fortune. Despite its considerable running time, Elvis simply doesn’t display enough intelligence to consider these serious subtexts. Presley’s drug addiction is dealt with in a perfunctory, cliched manner, reminiscent of scenes from a made-for-TV drama. In fact, Luhrmann seems to be reluctant to offer us any more than this rather distant, idealised and respectful version of the singer. Elvis was never obese or overweight at all in Luhrmann’s world. The well-documented food binges simply did not happen here, or the impact Presley’s weight issues had on his health. In Elvis, Presley’s main concerns in later life seem to be a wish to perform abroad or the financial scheming of his erstwhile manager (as if we really care). Luhrmann is squarely pointing a lazy finger at Parker for Presley’s demise. The real shame here is Luhrmann’s lack of empathy for the music Presley made. He holds the same disdain for Elvis’s intense movie career ie. both are barely featured or at best, featured as an afterthought. The real footage of Presley, viewed posthumously, briefly offers us the spark the movie so desperately lacks. The real Elvis Presley was not boring. Luhrmann’s confused and shallow movie loses sight of the soul of its central character. All that is left amongst the visual huff and puff is Luhrmann’s glitz.
I was excited to go and see a movie in the theatre after many years. I chose a venue that does wine and food and therefore, from their selection suggested that we see Elvis. Based on a Luhrmann interview and the trailer, I knew that the movie itself might not be a favourite of mine. I could not imagine, though, how much I would dislike the film. The first hour of the very long film felt like an endless introduction: endless edits, split screens and flashy camera glides from ground to roof and vice versa. Scenes were shorter than short. It became clear that the movie was attempting to fit “a complete story” into its length. This made for an unsettling feeling like the camera was too nervous to stay in one frame ever and like the storyteller was wavering in their perspective too. Also, I waited for the film credits to roll, for the real beginning to appear, but they never did.
The narrator of this story of Elvis is Tom Parker, his manager as played by Tom Hanks. Hanks has been fitted into a bodysuit to make him look a lot heavier and uglier. It’s the kind of unflattering role that some people win Oscars for, but I hope Hanks doesn’t as he is so much better as an actor than this role allows him to be. As a narrator Parker remains ambiguous for the first 15 minutes, then he is mildly defensive, and in the end he appears wholly unimportant. It seems that the movie itself loses interest in its villain-narrator early on. The problem is that as it engages in depicting the life of Elvis Presley from childhood to death, it manages to do this without really engaging, as if it was of no interest. Instead, the storytelling aspires towards contemporariness which leads somewhere in the vicinity of Youtube and TikTok and 1990s didactic epic movies such as Forrest Gump. In its excessive glittering and jerking the film is like an advertisement of some old time of which it understands nothing. The point is to not offer contextualisation, but to focus on visual period detail. Even Elvis’ music isn’t that exciting based on this movie.
In its excessive glittering and jerking the film is like an advertisement of some old time of which it understands nothing
The biggest problem is that Luhrmann doesn’t know how to tell the story of Elvis after #metoo and after Hollywood has begun to acknowledge and address its racism problem. In his film Elvis Presley is a conscientious borrower, an appreciative appropriator of Black music and culture. And the film suggests that he had the blessing of his contemporary Black artists, portraying Elvis as a nice white guy always on the right side of human rights fights in America. This portrayal is simplistic and rings wholly untrue. The other thing is that not only are the films BIPOC characters more like caricatures, nearly all characters, including Elvis himself, get no significant screen time and no significant lines at all. The depiction of Pricilla Presley is just another avoided complication. And Elvis played by Austin Butler is just lovable, although quite an uncomfortable poser with nothing to say. In the end this is a film by an egomaniac director who is only interested in himself, his manicured and repetitive antics, his furious editing style and his endless circus references. At the end of the nearly three-hour movie, I felt nauseated by how much money and human resources have been wasted to create Elvis. Last but not least: I was offended by the Finnish text translation on the screen that consistently translated the old-fashioned word for Black as the very offensive pejorative. There is no excuse for such racist mistranslation to be up on the screen every time this movie shows in Finland. As long as they remain there, sitting through the film in a movie theatre in Finland is a traumatising and dehumanising event.