Local Spins reviewer John Serba offers up his take on the much-ballyhooed biopic of Elvis Presley, with an emerging new star and Tom Hanks as the controversial Col. Tom Parker.
THE MOVIE: “Elvis”
LOCAL SPINS SCORE: ★★1/2 (out of four)
MPAA RATING: PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking
CAST: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson
DIRECTOR: Baz Luhrmann
RUN TIME: 118 minutes
SEE IT: Now in theaters; scroll down for movie trailer
“Elvis” is a music biopic told by a gambler, from a gambler’s perspective.
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Baz Luhrmann, a for-better-or-worse utterly fearless filmmaker who adapted literary exemplars “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby” for the screen, and once had the cojones to make a movie about the entire continent of Australia, tackles an even more enormous subject in the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s a risk. He funnels the narrative through Elvis’ longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a carnie-fraudster, crass opportunist and gambling addict who we meet on his deathbed, reflecting on his life with the ubiquitous entertainer. Appropriately, Col. Tom is seen wandering through a dreamscape chock-full of roulette tables and slot machines.
Col. Tom is played by a gregarious Tom Hanks in a fat suit, a fleeting Dutch-via-the-American-South accent blaring improbably from his mouth. Large chunks of the movie, you won’t be surprised to learn, are set in Las Vegas, the most garish place on Earth.
If you’ve seen any of Luhrmann’s films, you know he’s a visual and tonal maximalist, singular in his craft. One of the only things in existence that can possibly overshadow all this is the spirit of Elvis. It’s as if Luhrmann challenged the King’s star power to outshine his every directorial extravagance.
I’m happy, but more relieved, to report that it does, in a reasonably satisfying manner.
But “Elvis” is as exhausting as it is entertaining. It clocks in at 159 minutes, covers most of Elvis’ despairingly short 42 years, folds in multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards, occasionally features eight-way split screens, at one point puts the words THE WORLD CHANGED on the screen in block letters, and deploys montages like the grand marshal of the Independence Day parade pitching candy at children.
We’re left thanking the deities for Luhrmann’s thrilling, over-the-top musical sequences, which are intricate, masterfully executed technical displays that show us one fundamental component of Elvis’ performances: Sweat. It was the hormonal gasoline fueling his performances. The guy quite literally drips with it. And in one fantastic, hilarious moment, women in a concert audience are compelled by a greater force than the mind – it originates from somewhere down there – to stand up and involuntarily shriek.
There may not be a more thankless, impossible role to tackle than Elvis, so Luhrmann wisely cast a relative newcomer in Austin Butler, whose biggest previous role was a small one in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Butler sometimes resembles Nicolas Cage impersonating Elvis, which is a good thing, especially in a Baz Luhrmann movie, because without the hair flips and pseudo-karate poses and the Pelvis, it’s just not Elvis.
DEPICTING THE ‘PURE, UNCUT PASSION’ THAT KEPT ELVIS GOING
It’s not hard for Butler to render the man sympathetic; Elvis is one of the world’s most beloved, and tragic figures, and chances are, you hold at least a modicum of affection for him going into the movie. Butler’s biggest hurdle is to transcend impersonation, to make Elvis something resembling a man. And considering this is a print-the-legend, sometimes-obnoxious mega-biopic, the deck is stacked against him. But he goes ferocious for the musical performances, convincing us that pure, uncut passion is what kept Elvis going.
One of the film’s best sequences extrapolates on that notion. Frustrated by the nationwide controversy that his too-hot-for-TV dancing inspired, and fed up with Col. Tom’s insistence that he tone it down, Elvis hops in his car and turfs the Graceland lawn on his way to Beale Street, where he hangs with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), watches Little Richard (Alton Mason) tear it up and listens to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey) sing the gospel blues.
The music, and the emotions within it, are what he loves. These days, we call his controversial adoption of black musical styles “cultural appropriation,” but he merely embraced what inspired him – and the movie frames Col. Tom as the systematic racist who likely hadn’t sought Elvis as a client if his skin hadn’t been white. The singer’s love for black music is deeply embedded in his character: We see Elvis as a boy peeking into a shed, watching black musicians playing the blues and dancing suggestively, then immediately running to a revivalist tent for some hallelujah gospel, where the congregation swallows him up and renders him born again.
Underneath dense wads of facial putty, Hanks’ performance is patently absurd. Exaggerated, ridiculous, annoying, amusing. All of it. He’s the villain of the story, even though, in his sporadic voiceover narration, he insists he’s not. It’s 1997 and Col. Tom has collapsed, now it’s 1973 and Elvis has collapsed, now it’s 1955 and Col. Tom is a carnival barker who can’t get away from that Elvis song on the radio. He tracks the kid down and he’s a mama’s boy in makeup driving a truck in pink socks.
Col. Tom smells money, and it’s a whirlwind of music and travel and O-faced women and Hollywood roles and Elvis’ alcoholic mother (Helen Thomson) and as the story transitions out of the ’50s, we wonder if this movie will ever settle down.
It does — in lengthy sections that find dramatic traction in Elvis’ clashes with Col. Tom (who tried to tame Elvis’ passion in a quest for easy money) and in Elvis’ use of his music as political rebellion, reflecting his distaste for racial segregation and the despair he felt after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy.
The latter feel overstated, like glossy revisionist history. They’re also rote elements of any film about the events of the 1960s, but without them, “Elvis” would be at best a loud, overproduced jukebox musical.
Luhrmann doesn’t reinvent the music biopic, instead leaning heavily into formula, stopping a step or two shy or outright parody; his most audacious move is occasionally and casually dropping anachronistic hip-hop into the soundtrack, which one hopes upsets uptight audiences.
But ultimately, even Luhrmann’s considerable creative ego bows to Elvis, the 20th century’s most famous person. Where can the filmmaker go from here? The only things left are Christ and The Big Bang.
VIDEO: Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” (Movie Trailer)
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