Baz Lurhmann’s first film in 9 years is none other than Elvis (2022), as the entire globe seems to know by now. A summer blockbuster with no superheroes? So it would seem. As soon as the film was announced, a good number of American-variety Elvis fans took to the Internet, alternately expressing outrage and excitement, which validated that we have summer blockbuster material here. Most of the outrage focused on star Austin Butler, whom many compared unfavorably to Elvis (without seeing the film) or even hostility, accusing Butler of trying to replace Elvis. A disconcertingly large percentage of Elvis fans scrape the barrel bottom of all fandoms (and, given the competition from Marvel boys, that’s saying a lot).
Since Elvis’ death in 1977, he has become a patron saint for rednecks in double wides, so it’s no surprise that a lot of Elvis fans are dyed-in-the-wool Trumpers. Given that, it’s equally no surprise that his posthumous association with a faction of the zealous WASP demographic has done him considerable harm. Over the last several years, Elvis’ sales have dwindled. Many minority groups see Elvis in a disparaging light, accusing him of cultural appropriation and lumping him together with the most deranged of his fan base. When Lurhmann’s film was announced, Butler wasn’t the only one Elvis fans pounced on. Luhrmann was targeted because of his assumed sexual orientation (“How dare one of ‘them’ make a film about our King?”), as well as Hanks, because he supported Hillary Clinton (cue Qcumbers-styled blood libel).
Of course, Elvis’ late in life supposed conservatism has fueled right-wing fantasies about him. Never mind that he once supported Adlai Stevenson, RFK, and MLK (although, reportedly Elvis never voted, and his 1970 rendezvous with Nixon seems to have been mostly born of a bored little boy fantasy about being a federal drug agent). Opinions are divided on whether 1970s Elvis was really the conservative he is sometimes painted to be. Still, one might argue that the 1950s progressive Elvis was far more innovative than the institutionalized Elvis of his last decade. Regardless, Elvis’ reputation has practically been flushed by Grand Old Party fans.
Mighty Mouse cape intact, here comes that madman Baz Lurhmann to save the day (and he has, with the box office approaching 200 million and Elvis product selling at its best levels since 1977). Still, Luhrmann did not set out to make a typical biopic, and has said that all along. He has a focused, if lean, narrative: the relationship between Col. Tom Parker (Hanks) and Elvis (Butler). Of course, not all films make an altar out of narrative, and Lurhmann has always been a maximalist aesthete. That idea that Elvis is not a biopic has been a source of contention for some of star’s ex-girlfriends (who were not mentioned) and aforementioned fans.
Yet, even those who dislike the film overall are now singling out praise for Butler, who is terrific in the role of the charming Elvis, and seems destined for an Oscar nomination. He manages to deliver a hyper-kinetic performance while minimalizing the darker and less appealing personas of Elvis Presley. And what of the film itself? Luhrmann, with his stylized excess and nine-years-in-the-making obsession, would seem tailor made for Elvis’ story. And he is, for this kind of comic-strip narrative. An early (and ultimately silly) review complained that Lurhmann thought himself bigger than his subject by not minimizing his trademark flourishes. While Elvis is a personalized film for Luhrmann—and he is gleefully unsubtle stamping it so—it’s actually about as subdued as Luhrmann can get and still be Luhrmann. He neither out Lurhmannsnor himself (which may be rectified in the four-hour version that Lurhmann has promised, but has said is years away).
Elvis Presley historians (yes, Virginia, they actually exist) will learn nothing new here. The minimal biographical bullet points have been tread and retread in countless bios, TV dramas, and half-baked feature films. Newcomers will get a stylized dramatization about Presley the performer and his relationship with Mephistopheles, AKA Col. Parker. The film’s most interesting angle is that Lurhmann’s seems most entranced by the glitzy Vegas stage presence, not the private Elvis or the lean and dusty Elvis of Sun Records. (One suspects that Lurhmann would have voted for the 70s Elvis when USPS had customers choose between Vegas Elvis and 50s Sun Elvis; and one imagines that’s the way Elvis himself would have preferred it.) Lurhmann’s portrayal of the star’s parents show neither to be saints, which is likely the case. While the scene depicting Elvis and father Vernon’s grief over the death of mother Gladys doesn’t fully convince, there is a moment in which Elvis laments, “I killed my mother.” Gladys is akin to Leopold Mozart, haunting his son Amadeus from the grave. She will never forgive Elvis, even posthumously, for his success. In short, she is partially responsible for his death, as are his fans, his excesses, and his traumatic brain injury in the late 60s, which is oddly not depicted.
From 1968 to 1973 Elvis made four filmed concerts, firsts of their kind. Two of these, the phenomenally popular 1968 “Comeback” and 1973’s “Aloha Via Satellite” (which, in hindsight, was a foreshadowing of August, 1977) were televised. That’s the Way It Is (1970) and On Tour (1972) were theatrical releases, long before Madonna’s Truth Or Dare (1991). In none of them are we given even a glance of anything personal. That’s because Elvis was only Elvis as a spectacle with mic in hand (he once practically said as much in a press conference). Indeed, maybe we are in superhero movie terrain after all, because Luhrmann gives us Elvis as propped-up superhero. He is Shazam as Jesus as Elvis, who goes to the desert (a carnival) to face his temptation (Col. Parker). We see the danger that Elvis was; apt, because that’s what rock and roll is supposed to be. That danger is born of desperation and Pentecostalism, but as Pauline Kael said: “Elvis was programmed to sell out.” Sell out he does, but it’s such a brash, lively intoxication of excess that Kael’s point rings all too true: “Like Marlon Brando, no matter how overweight and how much of a parody Elvis had become, there was still a beauty to him.” The beauty is stagebound, and so Lurhamnn spares us details of peanut butter banana cheeseburgers and a humiliating toilet death.
Even as a Presley apologist, Luhrmann shows rather than tells: a young Elvis (Chaydon Jay, who is remarkable and deserves more press than he is getting) slides into a tent revival. Here is where the asinine accusations of cultural appropriation stem from. Mama was a Holy Roller and the Presleys were dirt poor. Unlike the vast majority of American whites of the period, they lived in an integrated neighborhood and attended an integrated church. Gospel, which included black and white gospel, is what Elvis knew and spoke. To accuse Elvis of cultural appropriation amounts to low-informed trendiness born of artistic naivete. Miles Davis absorbed the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gil Evans. Ravel and Debussy absorbed the music of Spain. Herbie Hancock absorbed Debussy. Van Gogh absorbed Japanese art. Gil Mellé absorbed Bela Bartok. Charles Mingus absorbed evangelical hymns. And on and on and on. An art critic once listed dozens of artists that Picasso was influenced by. Picasso himself wrote the critic, chiding him for forgetting Gauguin. Later, the artist proclaimed: “Hacks borrow. Artists steal.” In each case, artists, including Elvis, filtered what they absorbed through their own sensibilities. Other 1950s white rockers did the same (Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Bill Haley)—because that’s what artists have always done—but Elvis’ peers didn’t explode and sustain popularity like he did, because he was far more eclectic. Elvis absorbed country, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, folk, soul, ballads, and operetta as much as he did gospel. Presley’s voice was classically oriented, both baritone and tenor. Opera singers Bryn Terfel and Kiri Te Kanawa praise Elvis as the greatest of singers. nursed a long musical crush, having an encyclopedic knowledge of Elvis; one of Bowie’s last songs, “Black Star,” was based on Elvis’ original song for the film Flaming Star (1960). Robert Plant summarized Elvis with “That MF could sing!” Presley was both musically erudite and restlessly exploratory and, in his phrasing, he was actually closer to the likes of Sinatra and Billie Holiday than to other rock artists. However, Luhrmann’s film isn’t about to pause for historical music lessons. Like Presley, Elvis is on the move, gliding from a Ferris wheel to a 45 record.
Lurhmann gives extended attention to the ’68 comeback, too much. This is where Hanks dons his ugly Christmas sweater and screams he wants a Christmas song, dammit, and Elvis will give him one! In due time, but not until he and producer Steve Binder pull out all the stops for the most visceral, resplendent and gaudy televised hour of Elvis’ life. Naturally, Luhrmann razzle-dazzles us with his grand set pieces, and, repeat or not, who are we to deny him? Luhrmann zig-zags at whiplash speed between Elvis, Col. Parker, and late 60s mini-skirts, rendering all involved to smiling, exclaiming characters in a Technicolor extravaganza.
Surprisingly, Lurhmann nearly bypasses nine years of Hollywood turkeys. That’s a misstep, because even through the worst shiny drek, Elvis retained his famous smile, and there’s at least something to be said for that, and for using bright red convertibles as an enchanting transition to Sin City.
Much criticism has been aimed at Tom Hanks’ performance under a mountain of prosthetics and with wacky accent. It’s purposeful. Luhrmann’s casts the phony colonel as Old Nick, and one half-expects to find Hanks in a cave doing his bestimpression. I enjoyed Hanks’ risky character turn.
Elvis developed a 2001: A Space Odyssey obsession, and Luhrmann must have done his homework, because he includes a pointed visual homage. It somehow serves as a fit into the quintessential rags-to-riches-to-rot American mosaic.
Yet, for all the hyperbole and glitz, and Elvis anxiously waiting for death on his porch, the golden voiced Elvis is all that matters. Smartly, Luhrmann ends with that in 1977 when a bloated Elvis, barely able to walk across the stage, sits at the piano and belts out a jaw dropping “Unchained Melody,” that transitions from Butler Elvis to Elvis Elvis.
“Comets fall and when every man sees his flaming star
He knows his time has come.”