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Why Baz Luhrmann’s biopic fails to capture the real Elvis Presley

This conventional, sanitised version of the singer’s life is an endless highlight reel, with no room for the unsavoury or the problematic.

By Ryan Gilbey

Leaps in scale, ambition and accomplishment don’t come much more breathtaking than the one made by Baz Luhrmann between his cute 1992 debut Strictly Ballroom and the Fellini-meets-Michael Bay madness of Romeo + Juliet, which reimagined Shakespeare for a generation zonked on MTV and ecstasy. His movies since then have got louder (Moulin Rouge!), stupider (Australia) and blingier (The Great Gatsby) but progress has been negligible. The frantic camera, the bleeding of old pop culture into new, the cuts so fast they’re subliminal – he could do this stuff in his sleep. If Elvis is anything to go by, he has.

Luhrmann’s best idea is to show the life of Elvis Presley as recollected by his exploitative manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a gambling addict who lies in a Las Vegas hospital and imagines himself wandering empty casinos, dragging a morphine drip behind him. The mood is very Amadeus, though unlike Antonio Salieri in that film, Parker doesn’t comprehend his role in driving a genius to the grave. Instead he points the finger at us. What killed Presley, he says in an accusatory voiceover, was “his love for you”.

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The second-best idea is casting Tom Hanks, an actor not known for dallying with the dislikeable, as this sweaty sourpuss. It’s unfortunate that his deathbed make-up turns him into Goldmember, but for the rest of the film his bulbous prosthetic jowls give him a sad, teardrop-shaped look. His dollar-sign eyes glitter with prurient awe as he witnesses up close the impact on a female audience of the singer’s rubbery gyrations.

As Presley, the 30-year-old Austin Butler cuts cleanly through the on-screen clutter and strikes the right note visually, even if he lacks the youthful padding of puppy fat in the early scenes. There’s a brazen queerness to his first performance – his body moving like mercury inside his bright pink suit, his skin glossy with slap – which restores danger to a figure neutered by familiarity. “I could not overstate how strange he looked,” purrs Parker. “It was the greatest carnival attraction I had ever seen.”

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For most of the movie, Luhrmann fillets incident into montage, his slice-and-dice approach thwarting any possible momentum; we long for a scene that lasts more than ten seconds. It’s no coincidence that the strongest section, with Parker trying to pressure his client into performing a cosy Christmas special while Presley is intent on a strutting, leather-clad comeback, is one of the few allowed time to build. Nor is there much variety in pace; everything is staged as highlight or climax. A speeding car journey through the Hollywood hills promises a dramatic pay-off, only to culminate in… a conversation between Presley and a producer. All that commotion for a business meeting.

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Luhrmann gives proper space to Presley’s blues and gospel influences, and shows explicitly that conservative society’s fear of the singer was a fear of blackness. Audiences shouldn’t feel too aggrieved that the black characters come across like cheerleaders, urging Presley on to greater authenticity, rather than individuated people. After all, there aren’t really any characters here except for the two leads. Mourning the departure of Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) proves impossible when we have barely heard a peep from her since she and Presley were courting. It’s beyond the feeble power of a lachrymose orchestral arrangement of “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” to make the job any easier. Meanwhile, history flashes by like a flicker-book. Martin Luther King is shot. Bobby Kennedy is shot. Altamont is on the news. What, no moon landings?

The music biopic can be a hotbed of experimentation and fantasy: think of the Barbie dolls cast of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Roger Daltrey as Liszt having his blood sucked by a vampiric Wagner in Lisztomania or Bez from Happy Mondays arriving in Manchester via flying saucer in 24 Hour Party People. For all its relentless visual attack, Elvis is devoutly conventional. It omits the unsavoury (no burgers, no toilets) and the problematic (no Richard Nixon, no hint of accusations of racism or appropriation). Nothing here will prevent the film being sold in the Graceland gift shop.

A final on-screen title is suitably pedestrian: “Elvis’s influence on music and culture lives on.” Judging by the insipid cover versions, remixes and mash-ups-with-added-raps which dominate the soundtrack, not to mention the Jive Bunny-style medley which accompanies the end credits, this is an influence that’s alive only in the same way that zombies are.

This article was originally published on 22 June 2022.

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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working