Baz Luhrmann is an Australian director known for bold, extravagant films full of spectacle. His best-known films: “Moulin Rouge!”, “The Great Gatsby”, and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” feature famous actors, lavish sets and big musical numbers. Like a Quentin Tarantino film (over-the-top violence, quirky characters, an historical reimagining), a Luhrmann film has a recognizable style. There’s going to be big production numbers and larger-than-life characters.
This would seem to make him the perfect fit to write and direct a film about one of the most theatrical musicians in US history, Elvis Presley. Indeed, the first hour and a half of “Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis” has a lot going for it. The young star, Austin Butler, is phenomenal as young Elvis. He does his own singing and guitar playing. He has both the vulnerability and charisma to hold your attention. As someone who’s not a big Elvis fan, I was surprised by the makeup and pink suits, did Elvis ever look so feminine?
Watching the young boy (Chaydon Jay) discover music and become enthralled by the double jolt of sensuality and religious rhapsody sets the hook for this musical journey. With fast cuts, the narrative is off to a roaring start as it skips over Elvis’ early years. This is not a biopic. Even Elvis Presley’s film career is reduced to a highlight reel.
If only the tale wasn’t saddled with Colonel Parker’s viewpoint and untrustworthy narration. Hidden behind a hooked nose and shadowed under a large, upturned hat, it’s immediately clear that this is the villain. Tom Hank’s performance brings to mind the Wicked Witch, hovering menacingly in the background. Even having him played by beloved actor like Hanks, the off-putting accent and creepy cane make you want to protect this poor talented boy. Sadly, we have his company and voice for the full two hours and 39 minutes.
The rest of the cast is excellent though some are buried under bad wigs. There are too many hangers-on that never get a chance to have a personality. Elvis’s mom, Gladys (Helen Thomson) has some touching moments but his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) is a cipher, more of a symbol than a person. The film really comes to life when the focus is on the black musicians that inspired Elvis. The musical numbers are incredible.
Once Elvis is trapped in Las Vegas, the energy and excitement fade. There’s a brief spark when Elvis rebels and goes to Hollywood. The Christmas Special has an exuberance, both in the way it unfolds and in Butler’s performance. Since Parker doesn’t know what’s about to happen, the audience isn’t trapped in his version of the event.
It’s a struggle to make it through the final thirty minutes. Whether it’s the depressing tableau of Parker bartering Elvis’s talent to save his own neck (gambling debts) or maybe the tragedy of a life spiraling to the crash we know is coming, the film drags. Fatigue sets in when you’re watching an inevitable decline.
The Vegas shows pass by in a montage of Elvis in different leather outfits with colorful capes. Those scenes feature the real Elvis Presley’s singing. The bickering, betrayal, and descent into drugs and debauchery feel like boxes being checked. There’s another moment of lingering sadness when Pricilla (Olivia DeJonge) tries to convince Elvis to get help but it’s too little, too late. Both for Elvis and for the film.
Baz Luhrmann has created an interesting portrait of a larger-than-life music legend. There are some fabulous musical performances and Elvis fans will enjoy a fresh portrayal of him on the big screen. Luhrmann asks a lot of audiences. Your enjoyment of this film will rest on how much you can buy Tom Hanks in this role and whether you want to spend almost 3 hours in his company.
Drinks With Films rating: 2 glasses of water to wash down the pills (out of 5)
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