Elvis is out in cinemas today. Austin Butler impresses in a film that is both hurried and too long, relying solely on an intriguing storyline and an iconic soundtrack – though these, too, are done a disservice.
Never before have I seen something simultaneously so protracted and so rushed. By the final half hour of Baz Luhrmann’s 150-plus minute Elvis bio-epic, you’re itching to leave. For the first two hours, you’re trying to keep up with the relentless pace of a film attempting to cram every little detail from the King’s life into a single movie.
The result is that no one moment in Elvis ever feels genuine. Despite the strength of the performances, no emotional attachment to any of the characters is allowed to develop. The script between songs is dire. I can hardly recall one conversation that seemed believable, or a character besides Elvis himself who is remotely multi-dimensional.
Elvis exists with the fast forward button perpetually being held down. Take Elvis’ mother’s illness, or Priscilla deciding she’s leaving, or the hero heading off to war, or him returning and trying to break Hollywood…each of these major events lasts only 90-odd seconds, before stepping aside so Luhrmann can superficially march onward.
Making a film that is both rushed and too long is a bad combination. By glossing over some of the most influential moments in Elvis’ life, the characters seem almost melodramatic in reacting to them, so alien is the concept of depth to this movie.
I suppose it’s not all bad. Austin Butler impresses in the titular role. The character is somehow wooden when he’s not on stage, but when he does don the flared pants and gets those knees going, he’s every bit the performer. To capture the charisma and gravitas of Elvis is no small feat. Butler and his shaking hips succeed. The rendition of ‘If I Can Dream’ is a high point in the film – one of the few moments with enough context to actually make you feel something.
Then there’s Tom Hanks’ repulsive Colonel Tom Parker, the vessel through which Elvis is told. It’s a little strange seeing Hanks as an antagonist, and weirder still seeing him coated in cosmetics and heavy prosthetics to the point he looks like a bloated, cigar-smoking amphibian, but he succeeds in making you hate him, meaning he’s done his job – at least in Luhrmann’s world of superficial binaries.
Where the Colonel’s character falls short is in the lack of nuance. Parker’s exploitation of Elvis is so heavy-handed. They’re either best friends or enemies, and alternate only between the two extremes time and again. It’s obvious that their relationship was in fact more complicated, but this would make life more difficult for Luhrmann, and hence is overlooked. And then, like every other supporting character in Elvis, the Colonel’s life outside of his cash cow is overlooked. His gambling addiction and his mysterious origins – both shown to be integral to the Colonel’s ulterior motives – are explored briefly, only to be expanded upon in Elvis’s end credits. It’s a bit like cheating.
The music itself is enjoyable, but for a movie where the soundtrack should almost pick itself, it’s as average as it could ever really be. Luhrmann clearly has his favourites from the Elvis Presley catalogue. ‘Suspicious Minds’ is hammered home. Why he felt the need to add a few more modern tracks is beyond me, but equally the frequent incorporation of blues and gospel is welcome.
Elvis’ early days of hardship, and the profound influence of America’s black community, is noted throughout. In a way typical of this film, however, Luhrmannn avoids broaching any of the nuanced conversations that could be had around appropriation and politics at the time. Rather, Elvis is the romanticised saviour.
It’s a shame, really. Elvis Presley has one of the most intriguing stories of the 21st Century. This could have been special. Instead, Baz Luhrmann’s all style no substance approach seems a bit silly when dealing with the real world.
Elvis is in cinemas now.