Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” starring Austin Butler, is absolutely exhausting

Baz Luhrmann has never been given credit for his cinematic innovation, so let’s chime in here elvis He pioneered the first film to consist entirely of montage from start to finish. Get all of Montage’s greatest hits here: truckloads of newspaper headlines; a Ferris wheel that turns into a spinning record; a succession of screaming audiences from one city to another; concert posters symbolizing Elvis’ growing fame, where his name appears on the bill; money and the trappings of fame. Luhrmann’s penchant for this most hackneyed of techniques is just a symptom of a greater ailment in his filmmaking, namely his disturbing addiction to hacking and remixing. The director can’t hear a song, but he has to chop it up, spin it around, put a donk on it, slow it down, add a breathy voice, speed it up again, throw in a gospel choir, hit the echo pedal, and finish it off with an irrelevant rap -Outro. As with his process, so does his storytelling: it’s disheartening that he doesn’t trust his material to grab our attention on its own, instead puffing it up like Blackpool Illuminations. elvis is a film for babies.

The perceived catch for this new film is that it focuses on the financial abuse of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler, who isn’t the worst thing in the film) at the hands of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, who might be). This could have been a rich angle to tackle the legend of Elvis Presley, whose story is already well known, from his debut as a young rockabilly star to his residency in Las Vegas, to his purchase of Graceland and his growing addiction to drugs and alcohol. Luhrmann’s film hits all those beats and wide-eyedly hammers home a number of everyday observations about Presley, such as the fact that his music blends white country music with black music styles. There are undoubtedly people in the world who weren’t aware of this incredibly famous fact, and it’s only natural for an Elvis biopic to address it, but it’s Luhrmann’s way of handling it. Here we see a hilarious crash-zoom on Tom Hanks, who realizes the kid he’s hearing on the radio is white; a dreamy scene in which child Elvis witnesses a ridiculously “sexy” blues performance in a tent and takes part in a gospel revival during which he appears to embrace the spirit of black music; There’s also explanatory dialogue to that effect, newspaper headlines about segregation, and a bankrupt scene where Elvis, already an established star, takes inspiration from an up-and-coming man named Little Richard.

This approach greatly exaggerates Elvis’s innovation and is ridiculous when it comes to discerning the way he appropriated the music of artists of color like Little Richard. In fact, Little Richard had been performing for many years when Presley got around to recording That’s All Right, and Tutti Frutti was released not long after Presley’s Sun Records debut. That’s important, because far from being an example of American musical miscegenation, Elvis started out primarily by stealing from black artists and was given opportunities they wouldn’t have had because of his white complexion.

After spending so much time telling this alternate story, Luhrmann fails other aspects of Elvis’ life – for example, Presley goes from a promising young upstart with rising acclaim to a superstar who owns Graceland and sells merchandise. The death of Presley’s adoring mother is also hilariously inflated — one moment she’s alive, and the next, Austin Butler is crying over her blouses in a walk-in closet, not mentioning the fact that his mom made it in the intervening period. These flaws are important because the film is so extraordinarily long, spending what feels like decades with far less interesting elements of Presley’s life (like the Vegas residency) that the film feels cobbled together.

“These flaws are important because the film is so extraordinarily long, spending what feels like decades with far less interesting elements of Presley’s life (like the Vegas residency) that the film feels cobbled together.”

Beneath all of this emerge the well-known problems of biopics – not the least of which is the fact that Elvis is an extraordinarily famous icon and is one of the most imitated people on the planet. Austin Butler does an absolutely commendable job in this regard, especially when it comes to musical performances. During dialogue scenes, his Elvis voice occasionally sounds strained, but the main thing is that he doesn’t distract. Late scenes where we see the real Elvis perform show the difference in charisma quite painfully, but then again, the real Elvis didn’t have to fight his surroundings to convince people. Opposite Butler, Tom Hanks, all prosthetics and creepy vocal styles, plays Colonel Tom Parker as some sort of predatory alien — but for some reason his performance never comes alive. This controlling character needed to be so much more villainous, much more edge, rather than having him on the sidelines as an unreliable narrator. This failure to nail Tom Parker may have been the film’s most interesting facet: a grim look at Elvis as a caged toy could make for a stunning film, perhaps by a director other than Luhrmann.

elvis is such a banging, buzzing, relentless object that flashes its gold for 2.5 hours like a drunk old millionaire in a strip club. The overall effect of so much frenetic vulgarity, so many shiny effects, is one of utter exhaustion. Luhrmann will undoubtedly never slow down, but there may still be time for him to get his hyperactive cinema into shape, perhaps with the help of a die-hard screenwriter (elvis Credits about 192 people with script assignments) who can bring something recognizable human into his world. Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” starring Austin Butler, is absolutely exhausting


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