The King of Rock and Roll deserves better than a film biopic. It’s not that Elvis Aaron Presley is an especially moral person, or even especially interesting as a human. But Elvis, as a symbolic force, is one of the most important American cultural phenomena of the 20th century. He embodies so many core American ideas that would be impenetrable in an ordinary biopic.
Thankfully, Elvis is no ordinary biopic. It is a piece of myth-making rock-and-roll opera. There’s a slight irony that it took an Australian to tell this quintessentially American story right: Baz Luhrmann dials his maximalist instincts up to 11. He finds in rock and roll a series of contradictions at which Elvis is the fulcrum: It’s Black music made for white people; it’s pure sex and an expression of the divine; it’s calculated presentation and raw instincts; it’s a carnival act and a higher calling. Rock and roll is everything, all at once, ready to be exploited by the Colonel Tom Parkers of the world.
Luhrmann is fully up to the task of tackling these ideas in huge strokes. In some ways, this feels like a Zack Snyder superhero movie, but instead of Superman, we have The King. Luhrmann frames Austin Butler like a Greek statue, an Adonis from Memphis, in sharp poses and compositions. All of Luhrmann’s long-standing visual fascinations linger here: fast cuts and zooms, swooping cameras, glittering lights and swishing fabrics, color tints, embellishments like captions and mattes, intercutting between semi-related topics for dramatic impact, etc. These tools are put to great use: the larger-than-life American legend meets the larger-than-life filmmaker.
Musically, too, this is pure Luhrmann: Remixed, glossy versions of Elvis’s recordings accompany a dramatic score as well as plenty of modern tracks for flavor.
Of particular potency are the montages early in the film: Impressionistically, Luhrmann explores the birth of rock and roll and the birth of an icon, framed from the eyes of the eager exploiter, Parker (Tom Hanks). And, since the movie addresses the viewer directly via narration and places us in Parker’s shoes, the implication is that we, the masses and the consumers, are the real makers and destroyers of Elvis, as much as Parker.
Butler is terrific and receiving well-deserved laurels for a transformed performance. He captures the tics and the voice and the look; more essentially, he assembles it into a rich portrait of someone jittery and uncertain offstage but a refraction of God onstage.
Yet, I think Hanks might be even better. He certainly understands the assignment better than anyone else on cast, creating a barely-human villain of mythic proportions. Hanks’s Colonel Tom Parker is a drawling carnivore in a fat suit with a thousand hungry, capitalistic impulses gleaming from his eyes. His performance is just as much of a cornerstone of the film as Butler’s, one perfectly attuned to Luhrmann’s vision.
The downside is the hit-or-miss script, which includes too many of the expected, overdone beats of the genre: the first girlfriend/wife, the drug spiral, the public backlash, the infidelity, the new manager who tempts the talent away from the old manager, etc. If you’ve seen Walk Hard, you know what to expect. Biopics gonna biopic.
It’s also an exhaustingly long film. Luhrmann does his best to keep the momentum rolling for 159 minutes and, frankly, does an admirable job. The movie never runs out of ideas or images, but it does drag on, and I did check my watch a few times by the end. Had the movie concluded with his comeback special rather than his death, I don’t think it would be any less rich or complex, and it would have saved everyone an hour.
But what we do have is a monolith to Americana and celebrity, a portrait of a man and a generation all in one. It’s a perfect pairing of topic and filmmaker, and even if I desperately wish Luhrmann had sanded down the edges, Elvis is one hell of a film.
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