In Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis,’ the King brings style but no conviction

Luhrmann’s work here is defiantly messy in chasing a sense of historic import, careening between notions of its purpose from scene to scene

click to enlarge Austin Butler stars as Elvis. - Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.
Austin Butler stars as Elvis.

There are plenty of questions to ask about Elvis Presley as an outsized figure, artist, and enduring cultural presence. But the setup of Baz Luhrmann’s vigorously staged new biopic of the King invites one most of all: is it possible for a star to get as big as he was without selling their soul? The more salient term in music might once have been “selling out,” but Luhrmann makes the relationship between Presley and his longtime manager, Tom Hanks’s Tom “the Colonel” Parker, his film’s nominal center, puzzling over the Dutchman’s parasitic relationship to Austin Butler’s guileless, basically innocent rendition of the star. Despite the seeming clarity and focus this sort of setup might suggest, Luhrmann’s work here is defiantly messy in chasing a sense of historic import, careening between notions of its purpose from scene to scene. Rarely surprising in spite of this, Elvis remains throughout insistently glossy, capable of blithely charging through any complexities that arise without so much as blinking. Managing to somehow prove both condescending to audiences and determinedly inoffensive, Luhrmann’s latest is a symptom of a moment in which we can most always expect studio releases to talk down.

As recounted through the Colonel’s perspective in half-accented voiceover, Presley’s pop-cultural rise and eventual canonization follow a rags-to-riches trajectory. Moving from his childhood in Mississippi projects (inauspicious beginnings) to Graceland (a starry vision of artistic actualization) in Memphis and, finally, a Las Vegas residency (explicitly called out as a gilded cage), Presley’s final years evoke his first artistically active ones, with casinos providing echoes of cheap carnivals he played in the film’s first act. Rather than positioning a lifetime of such careerist movements as a series of financial and personal decisions with (eventually) fatal and destructive consequences, or playing meaningfully on this kind of eerie circularity, Elvis manifests all its action as inevitable, a remembered history that seems to have never breathed as living present: a most unquestioning sort of remembrance. While Hanks’s Colonel — pitched as a swindler and perennial exploiter of artists, and looking like a greasy egg — provides an ostensibly biased account, most scenes within Elvis are buoyed by an unquestioning air as sure as scripture, disregarding the sort of subjective view a smarter approach to narration might  provide.

To this end, Luhrmann focuses on hits: both world-historical and artistic. Echoing the more drastic coincidences of Forrest Gump decades back, with key events manifesting here in media like newspapers and television so that Presley and friends might opine on them onscreen, Luhrmann grants their bland utterances the stature of events in themselves. “Dr. King, he always spoke the truth,” says Presley once; later, the Colonel cracks a newspaper with coverage of Sharon Tate’s death plastered on the cover, musing over his coffee. When Bobby Kennedy’s assassinated in ‘68, Presley declares with a start “Oh my god!” — as though anyone should really care what Presley might have said or thought right then. (The film cares little, too, for that matter, about anything he might think in most any other scene.)

Such moments would scan as comically self-important bits of striving on their own, but an effort to establish Presley as a progressive figure in alignment with the counterculture supplies Elvis with one of its few motifs not outlined explicitly in dialogue. Presley’s engagement with different strains of music, and particularly Black music, is well-trodden terrain for retrospective listeners, and rightly treated as a crucial element of his success. As many have noted, Presley’s enmeshing of rhythm and blues and revival tent standards alongside mainstream country acts could well be construed as opportunistic even on his own part: an allegation that’s a surer thing when leveled at Presley’s handlers. But Luhrmann, ever shy about suggesting any coherent psychology for Presley, save for the trials that accompanied his substance addictions, goes so far as to imply that Presley played a nearly messianic role in mending America’s racial divides. As flesh and spirit met in Christian conceptions of Jesus, he suggests, so too did Black and white strains of popular music come together in the sound and stage presence of Presley himself; the result paved a path for America toward progress.

This suggestion, that Presley’s engagement with Black popular music played an active role in healing America’s mid-century cultural repression, conservatism, and accompanying faultlines, goes far beyond what might be deemed reasonable without some form of backing that Elvis fails to provide. In one demonstrative scene at a large outdoor show, racially segregated concertgoers rip down a partition to dance together in spite of police presence. In another, a televised concert contributes to a group of young women’s (as well as one man’s) sexual awakenings. In another, a heckler calls Presley’s pink suit and makeup queer before the audience’s women go wild over the act that follows. Such moments constitute small assertions of independence peppered throughout Presley’s life, even at those times when Hanks’s Colonel inveighs against the “hippies and radicals” of the ’60s and ’70s. (In one scene, Presley is even worried about being “canceled” over his ever-working hips.) But in remarking that Presley exercised the freedom — and obvious privilege — of moving through and evoking the stylings of variously racialized spaces, Luhrmann’s positioning of him as a Civil Rights icon or some kind of warrior against repression comes off as a significant interpretive reach.

Presley’s artistic lineage and impact on popular culture — especially the music industry — are worth puzzling over, certainly, and it’s in some small way a credit to Elvis that it engages with these themes. But even as Luhrrman seems willing to speculate about Presley’s pop-cultural and political reach, any examination of the star’s inner life — some hint of the workings that might motivate his politics, aesthetic, or style — seem studiously absent in what’s here. Inquiries into what Presley thinks he’s pursuing, aside from money and fame, are waved off by Presley’s mother, who says his stage presence is “God-given — so there can’t be nothing wrong with it.” That’s Luhrmann’s promise — and his plea — to viewers, too: please enjoy, but just don’t look too close.

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