Bad Luhrmann’s Elvis succeeds much in the same way that Bohemian Rhapsody did. Which is to say that it doesn’t always succeed, but it frequently captures the musical spirit of its subject impressively. Or maybe the magnetism of Elvis Presley or Freddie Mercury and lively performances from the actors portraying them is simply overpowering.
From Moulin Rouge! to The Great Gatsby and more, Luhrmann’s stylized productions have always flashed a bigger than life vibe. Mr. Presley is a sensible icon for him to cover. Austin Butler plays The King. Before he inhabits the role (and he does), we see the poor Mississippi youth who catches musical inspiration in two ways. One is the sacred in the gospel church. The other is more profane in the sweat drenched blues sessions nearby.
The melding of each eventually makes him the best selling solo artist of all time. Narrating that four decade long journey is Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), his corrupt and crafty manager. Their union is the rocky constant in a triumphant and turbulent career that includes the popularization of rock and roll to the masses. The two and a half hour plus biopic is told in a sometimes Forrest Gump style journey through history that somewhat clumsily brings the MLK and RFK Jr. assassinations into the fold. Of course, it also includes the known greatest hits and misses. Iconic wiggles. The close knit and cut short relationship with his mother (Helen Thomson). A hoped for James Dean style film career stalled. The marriage to younger Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). Pills and guns.
Much of this is familiar territory for this genre. In fact, one could say Elvis’s trajectory is perfectly suited for it. A star is born. And the star’s light goes out too soon. Unlike the aforementioned Gump, Hanks is not among the strongest aspects. Buried in makeup that doesn’t make you forget it’s Hanks buried in makeup, his acting borders on cartoonish parody. If their relationship is meant to be the emotional core, the screenplay falters in that regard.
Where Elvis builds its momentum is in Butler’s dynamism. To offer that he’s utterly convincing even in the live hip shaking portions says it all. Those sequences are rhapsodic and a wise use of Luhrmann’s overwhelming brand of storytelling.
*** (out of four)