Ah, the biopic—a genre we know too well. Still, in a clever move for his newest film, Elvis, endlessly grandiose writer/director Baz Lurhmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby) brings us Elvis Presley’s life story from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (an absolutely bizarre Tom Hanks), the rockstar’s longtime manager and manipulator.
Upon discovering the soon-to-be legend (played here by Austin Butler), Parker spends decades pulling his strings. For his part, poor little Elvis wants nothing more than to be authentic, but, like clockwork, his well-known demise catches up with him.
If you know Lurhmann, you know the definition of bombastic. The Australian filmmaker is one of the few remaining capital-A auteurs left in popular cinema. Here, as he does, find him using anachronistic tunes in period settings (mash-ups of Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, for example), swirling camera movements and themes prodding American pomposity. Given how this worked in 2013′s Great Gatsby—and I’m in the camp who thinks that film is criminally underrated—it’s surprising Luhrmann can’t fully form his ideas with Elvis. You can practically feel how tempted Luhrmann was to explore the pop culture world that made Elvis, rather than the singer himself, and it would have really been something had he gone all out on that. Sadly, though, Luhrmann can’t swim out of the current that pulls him back towards typical filmic melodrama. Why sacrifice the narrative that poverty, racial oppression and capitalist exploitation led to Elvis and instead feed us something about his success having been forged on talent alone? Why dive headlong into the expected fall-from-grace arc? It’s a shame a film promising to be so fresh devolves as it does.
Even still, it’s damn entertaining, and Butler’s dedication makes it a worthy watch. Elvis might be low-tier Lurhmann, but low-tier Lurhmann is still a decent high-energy outing for those who enjoy these typical tales.
+ Energetic; insanely entertaining
- Loses focus; devolves into standard biopic
Directed by Lurhmann
With Butler, Hanks and Olivia DeJonge
Violet Crown and Regal, PG-13, 159 min