The Movie Waffler New to VOD - ELVIS | The Movie Waffler

New to VOD - ELVIS

elvis review
Biopic of the king of rock 'n roll.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann

Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Luke Bracey, Natasha Bassett, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, Kodi Smit-McPhee

elvis poster

When John Carpenter was tasked with directing a biopic of Elvis Presley soon after the singer's passing, he wisely understood that John Carpenter wasn't bigger than Elvis, and so he delivered a scaled down, intimate look at the life of the American icon. I suspect Baz Luhrmann is more in line with John Lennon, believing himself not just bigger than Elvis, but bigger than God. In his Elvis biopic, simply titled Elvis, the king of rock 'n roll comes second to Luhrmann's tiresome visual style, an exhausting amalgam of Michael Bay and '90s Oliver Stone that always seem to want to get to the next scene before we have time to digest the scene we're currently watching.

Luhrmann's film focusses heavily on Elvis's notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played here by Tom Hanks in a fat suit. It's a career nadir for Hanks, who narrates the life of Elvis in a bizarre European accent that certainly doesn't sound like a Dutchman. Luhrmann appears to take inspiration from Stone's Nixon biopic with this device, as the movie's antagonist pleads with the audience for understanding. Perhaps there's something interesting about a foreigner going to America and living the capitalist American dream only to find himself one of the most hated men in America, but it's something Luhrmann isn't interested in.

elvis review

With references to the turmoil of America in the mid 20th century, the movie dabbles in shallow politics inserted for some unlikely drama. Elvis watches the news about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy and mumbles about how it's a shame and perhaps he should try to heal America through his music. This puts him at odds with Parker, who wants to keep his boy apolitical. Sorry, is this a biopic of Elvis or Woody Guthrie? There's a sequence around the 1968 comeback special that literally rehashes a segment from Hal Ashby's excellent Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, with Elvis defying a TV network to deliver his message. None of it makes any sense here though, as it's a massive production that was filmed over several days so there's no way the network didn't know what they were getting into.

Played by Austin Butler, who doesn't look so much like Elvis as like his Madame Tussaud's wax figure, Elvis is mostly a one-note victim here, the Pinocchio to Parker's sinister Geppetto. That may be true to life to some degree but I'm not sure it's how anyone wants to remember Elvis, and it makes for a depressing second half of the movie that no amount of Luhrmann's histrionics can wash over.

elvis review

Butler does a good job with what he's given, but he's not given a whole lot. Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie has three good scenes and no bad one. Elvis has three good scenes and dozens of bad ones, and it's no surprise that those three good scenes feature Elvis performing on stage. With his shaking hips and swagger, we're left in no doubt as to why the teenagers of the world fell under the singer's spell.

Commendably, Luhrmann reminds us that Elvis was preceded by many black singers who didn't receive anywhere near the same level of recognition. As Elvis launches into one of his hits, Luhrmann will flash back to a blues singer performing the song a decade earlier to a tiny audience in a bar or alone in a barn. But there's something off about how Luhrmann fetishises African-Americans here, and I have no idea why he chose to score scenes set in the black part of Memphis with modern hip-hop. There's one very strange scene where Elvis discovers Little Richard in a small bar in 1958, three years after that singer scored his first trans-Atlantic hit with Tutti Frutti. How could Elvis not have been aware of Little Richard (played by Alton Mason as a proto-Prince) at that point?

elvis review

Luhrmann's film is an autopsy of American pop culture performed by a drunk butcher with a bonesaw. The only thing that's all shook up here is the timeline, with Sharon Tate being murdered on the same night as the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont and Elvis not beginning his movie career until he returns from military service. It's difficult to tell what stage of Elvis's life we're currently watching, as he never puts on weight until a closing scene that sees Butler don a fat suit that makes him look like a supporting character in a Mike Myers comedy. Perhaps what's most disappointing about Elvis is how we never once see the great man eating. One of history's great eaters and we don't see so much as a peanut butter and banana sandwich pass his lips. Desperate not to portray Elvis in any negative light, the movie is deceptive in its failure to mention the love of his life, Priscilla (Olivia De Jonge), was 14 when they began courting.

In many ways Luhrmann's Elvis biopic plays like the Stars on 45 version of Carpenter's earlier film. It takes practically the same plotline and adds mechanical beats and a coke-fuelled refusal to examine anything in detail. The best scene in Carpenter's film sees him simply place his camera in front of Kurt Russell's Elvis as he performs Suspicious Minds in his Graceland living room, surrounded by an entourage of friends and exploiters. I think this is how Elvis fans want to remember their idol, as a man with a voice that had to be heard, but Luhrmann is only interested in the surface spangles.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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