Only a lunatic would attempt to make a big-budget biopic about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, so it makes sense that Baz Luhrmann directed Elvis (now on HBO Max), which is now available to rent or buy on VOD from platforms like Amazon Prime Video. The Australian filmmaker, the Master of Anachronism, is an audacious stylist who stares down monolithic subjects like no one else can: Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the entirety of Australia. He drops hip-hop into the soundtrack of an Elvis movie, he puts Tom Hanks in a fat suit and facial prosthetics, he casts a relative no-name in Austin Butler for the title role, he puts the words THE WORLD CHANGED on the screen like it’s a proclamation from the gods themselves. And we’d rightly wonder whether all this could be simply amazing, or utterly unwatchable.
ELVIS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: It’s 1997: Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks) is on his deathbed. He narrates in an impossible accent that’s Dutch via the American South. Can you imagine it? That voice? That it’s ridiculous and possibly deranged? Be thankful the voiceover drops out for long stretches of this very long movie. From here on out, there will be flashbacks and flash-forwards and montages, so many montages, as Col. Tom tells us the Story of Elvis Presley and how the singer became bigger than the Big Bang.
Elvis Presley, a poor boy from dusty Mississippi, cemented his destiny on one hot summer day: He sneaks a peek into a cabin where Black folk sing and dance to the deep, deep blues. Then he dashes to a revivalist tent, where a hallelujah-gospel throng swallows him up and renders him reborn. Big day! For Elvis, and for purveyors of narrative shorthand! Now a young man, Elvis just wants to sing and strum like his Beale Street rhythm-and-blues heroes. He wears pink socks and a little bit of makeup on his cheeks as he drives a delivery truck to help his mama Gladys (Helen Thomson) pay the bills. This, despite “That’s All Right” playing on the radio, because we all know having a local hit doesn’t make a career, but we also know it’s not about how far and wide it gets played, but who hears it. And who hears it is Col. Tom, a carnival barker who’s overjoyed that a white boy is singing black music, because that means the potential audience is without limit.
So Col. Tom scoops up Elvis. Takes him under his wing. Puts him on stage so he can blow away headliner Hank Snow. And when the pompadoured boy gets to dancing, well, that’s when the ladies in the audience begin standing. And screaming. Standing and screaming as if they’re not in control. Not in the least. Shrieks manifest from their throats as if they’re possessed. As if they’re being puppeteered by the raging hormones inside them. Their boyfriends are unamused. This is all going according to Col. Tom’s plan – the stages get bigger and the money rolls in and the “Hound Dog” merchandise starts moving and Elvis is on TV from the waist up only because his hips are positively Satanic. And when things get rough Col. Tom urges Elvis not to be Elvis, but to be all things for all people. Not a hound dog. A lap dog. That’s what you call irony. To find his footing, Elvis goes to Beale Street and hangs with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), watches Little Richard (Alton Mason) rip it up, soaks in the soul of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s (Yola Quartey) gospel.
The story continues. Because Luhrmann’s Elvis saga will not be contained to a manageable stretch of time. Oh no. Gotta explore his whole life in 159 minutes. The movies, the military, the marriage, the meltdowns. (The montages!) The drugs, the drugs, the drugs. MLK and JFK and RFK. The Beatles. Vegas. Not the guns or the peanut butter and jelly and bacon submarine sandwiches – I mean, ew. The performances. Oh, the performances: The one on the Christmas special. The one that causes a riot. The ones in Vegas where he’s just sweating, sweating, sweating. There’s rich subtext here about sweat, what it does, how it looks, how it feels, how it fuels. Elvis sweats a lot. By the end, Col. Tom is the villain here, the exploiter, the man who lived a long life. But who remembers him now?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Elvis is like Bohemian Rhapsody, except it’s competently written, directed and edited. It’s not as good as the rousing Rocketman or the classically constructed Walk the Line. It’s a touch better than Respect. It’s a lot like Ray in its conventional biopicisms, and almost as out-there as The Doors.
Performance Worth Watching: Hanks can f— right off with that cornball shtick he’s doing, and it pains me to say that. I’m going to blame it on Luhrmann. But you can also praise the director for casting Butler, who brings depth and humanity to an impossible role, and makes us believe that Elvis was not a man of material desires, but a man whose great and smoldering passion for music made him an icon. We sure would like to believe one of the most famous people to walk on Earth was that way, wouldn’t we?
Memorable Dialogue: Elvis, on his pelvis: “If I can’t move, I can’t sing.”
Sex and Skin: None, which leads me to assume that Elvis never had sex.
Our Take: Elvis is nutty, over-the-top, wild, smudgy, long, ridiculous, annoying, all over the road, insane, exciting, entertaining, thin in some places, bloated in other places, but perfect in other other places – and those perfect bits are the performances, which burst with life and energy, proving that Luhrmann is the greatest music video director ever to never direct a music video. Luhrmann continues to be the most Luhrmann that he can be, and any preconceived notion that he’d be a presence bigger than Elvis in a movie about Elvis just isn’t true. It’s more of a stalemate staredown. Neither seems of the type to bow in deference to another. Elvis and Luhrmann meet in the middle, 50-50, and it works. That the film is more watchable than risible seems like a small miracle.
Of course, this is very much a print-the-legend biopic that mostly glosses over Elvis’ ugly excesses and insists he was paying respectful homage to the Black music that many will quite persuasively argue that he appropriated; the movie paints him as someone who had rhythm and blues coursing through his veins and pouring out his pores, who loved it too much to merely exploit it for fame, money and icon status. No, that was all Col. Tom, the money-grubbing racist loved Elvis not as a person, but as someone who lined his pockets with gold.
After a breathless first half, Elvis finally settles its nerves and finds a groove – as much of a groove that a hyperkinetic Luhrmann film can find, anyway. It’s kind of relentless and pushy, a hair’s width from obnoxiousness, except when Hanks’ Col. Tom oozes across the screen, which is when it’s deep in the Obnoxio Swamp. Beneath its many accouterments – at one point, the screen splits eight ways, and I almost had a seizure – the film’s skeleton is highly conventional, constructed from all the standard rollercoaster-life music-biopicisms. Butler keeps the film from launching willy-nilly into the stratosphere, selling the melodrama with just enough earnesty to make us believe in him. He reminds us that Elvis was a man, not a god, and for that, the movie should consider Butler a godsend.
Our Call: Bottom line, Elvis is not bad, pretty good even, but not very good, and never great. But it’s still worth a STREAM IT, just be sure to buckle your seatbelt first.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.