I don’t want to say Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley is over the top and overstuffed, but it’s about as bloated as The King was in his last years.
The difference in this telling of his life story is that much of its focus is on the antagonist — Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who narrates the movie. That gives Luhrmann an opportunity to showcase the many ways Parker abused his position, micromanaging Elvis’ career while stealing millions of dollars from him. He nicknamed himself “Snowman” and referred to show business as “snow business,” because he knew from his carnival years about “snowing the rubes to get every possible dollar out of them.”
This is the movie Hanks was making in Australia when he got COVID. In a fat suit and facial prosthetics which grow larger through the years, he unfortunately adopts an odd accent as the Dutch-born Parker, which makes it quite difficult to understand a lot of what he says. That’s not a good attribute for a movie narrator. In fact, the overall sound design of “Elvis” is terrible, except in the musical sequences. Too often, dialogue gets muffled by ambient sound — and I don’t mean that in a good, Robert Altman sense.
Luhrmann takes us through all the usual milestones of Elvis’ life and career, from Memphis to Las Vegas. I was happy to see scenes in which he was inspired by going to Beale Street clubs to watch Black musical pioneers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, BB King, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and Arthur Crudup (played by Gary Clark Jr., he was the writer and original singer of “That’s All Right Mama,” which Elvis then covered as his first record).
There are approximately 834,512 Elvis impersonators in the world, including one who is a longtime dealer at the World Series Of Poker (really!). Many of them could do better than “Elvis” star Austin Butler does in the dramatic scenes. But I’ll give the kid credit for nailing Presley in the concert scenes — and especially the 1968 comeback TV special that was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Presley’s career. When I talked with producer/director Steve Binder about that show in 2016, he explained how he got around Colonel Tom Parker and dealt directly with Elvis, even so far as telling him his career was in the toilet — and to illustrate that, took him out on the street, where no one recognized Presley (listen to my conversation with Binder here).
I also enjoyed Luhrmann zooming in on the reactions of women and girls seeing Elvis’ wiggling and gyrating, much to the chagrin of the men in the audience and backstage. And he includes the time Elvis (still a relative newcomer) was forced to sing “Hound Dog” to a droopy-eared pooch on “The Steve Allen Show.” Allen was notorious for his dislike of rock and roll in any form, and mocked it for decades.
For many viewers, moments like that will be new information about Presley. Since he died 45 years ago, I wonder just how relevant he is to anyone from Gen X or later. The audience for “Elvis” will probably be people over 50. Or maybe 60? Remember, he was out of sight and out of mind for most Americans during his performing residence in Las Vegas through of the 1970s. And while people do still line up to get into Graceland, it’s not the same crowd that’s going to see Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X.
One last thing. At the screening I went to, before the movie started, there was a slide on the screen with a picture of Butler as Elvis. Next to it was this text:
A Baz Luhrmann film. From a story by Baz Luhrmann and Jeremy Doner. Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromell and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner. Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
There must be some difference in the Writer’s Guild contract between the word “and” and an ampersand in connecting the writers’ names. But how about Baz Luhrmann including his name twice in the screenplay credits — and a total of five times overall? Most filmmakers would tell the publicists, “Just put me in there once, that’s enough.” But I probably shouldn’t expect that from a man who made a two-hour-thirty-nine-minute overblown movie about an overhyped rock star with an overzealous manager.
I’m giving “Elvis” a 5 out of 10. Opens today in theaters, and streaming on HBO Max in mid-August.