The Film Buffa: ‘Elvis’ is big, grand, and very Baz! But is the biopic any good?

Very late in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” the audience gets a real look at the King’s final performance. Bloated yet still starry eyed with a velvet voice, it’s instantly captivating. A place the rest of the movie, all two hours and 40 minutes of it, spends a lot of time chasing down but never exactly achieves. It’s only when we see the real thing all drugged up, sitting at that piano-surrounded by Coke paper cups and music notes in an outfit fit for jumping a building and singing inside of it-that we find out something about the man.

Luhrmann’s very loud and stylishly produced film thrives in the first hour, when the unconventional timeline jumping-his childhood days in Tupelo to being told not to dance on the big stage-feeds off the energetic lifestyle of its subject. Played with endurance and occasional brilliance by Austin Butler, Presley was an entertainer who fed off the attention he received on stage. It’s what pulled the moves out of him for the first time, seeing the women by the stage acting unusually interested. It was everything that he was told not to do, or when or how he could, that ultimately led to his destruction.

The problem here is that “Elvis” is a tale of two movies: one centered on Presley, and another entrenched in his representation/agent, “The Colonel” Tom Parker (chewed to misdirection by Tom Hanks). The movie is narrated by the two-time Best Actor winner. Hanks-battling with and fumbling one of the worst screen accents since Robert Downey Jr. in “Dolittle”-takes over the film every time he’s in the scene, and often not in a good way. There are genuinely well-captured moments between Butler and Hanks, ones that hint that somewhere in the director’s supposed four-hour cut there is a better movie.

It’s not a bad movie at all. The storytelling in the first hour is much better than the rest of the film, and that keeps it from “Cloud Atlas” kind of awful-land. A few of the musical numbers really pop, and Butler brings Presley to life in song and off-screen humility that again, hint of a better overall movie–one not entrapped by telling two stories. One about the rise and fall of a legend, and another about the fatherly con man who swindled him out of his durability. Maybe in a movie of his own, Hanks would find some rhythm in the larger-than-life shoes of Parker, an illegal immigrant with a gambling problem who has the right words for a legendary artist to hear.

But Luhrmann jerks the movie around so much, in every which way but anything resembling cohesion. Lots of flash and dance, with tons of overworked “Elvis” close-up shots showing us the wonder in slow decay. By the end, I didn’t feel like there was anything about Presley learned here that I didn’t already know. Little of it was very interesting. The Colonel manipulation is nearly treated with melodramatic kid gloves in the poorly paced second half, and that drowns out the fun in seeing the more interesting subject perform.

Pick a movie. Pick a character. These two were too big for this one, even as it came in just around the average Marvel film. Time unwisely spent in one of these summer biopics can backfire in an overstuffed boredom sort of manner, one that “Elvis” unfortunately achieves.

If you’re an Elvis buff like my good friend, Camille, you will most likely adore this film, warts and all. I admired parts of it, but found the whole to be less than pleasing. Swing and a fly ball to center field, and a routine catch for the outfielder. If this movie were a baseball play, that would be my description.

Here’s the thing. Right before the lights went out and this movie began at the Esquire theater, I leaned over and told someone that as good as he is, Hanks could be a big distraction in this movie. In order to pull off this dual-sided tale, the script would have be deft and tread honestly over a life many celebrate like a religion.

Somewhere in the loads of footage, there’s a pretty good movie. This cut isn’t it, not for me. Hanks tries his best and so does Butler, but the film sinks on disappointment due to the lack of a true identity. Four different sets of hands on the script probably did more harm than good.

One thought on “The Film Buffa: ‘Elvis’ is big, grand, and very Baz! But is the biopic any good?

  1. Hi, Dan. Very much agree with most everything you say here. And I am a reluctant Elvis buff. It’s a love/hate thing that just sort of happened, an Elvis vortex I fell into for eight, nine months several years ago, where I could not stop reading about him, watching and listening to everything I could find.

    I know you may not read the comments (wouldn’t blame you!), but I want to mention that that final clip of Elvis’s very late performance of “Unchained Melody” was not actual footage of Elvis. Not sure from your wording if you thought it was or not. But I did! In my defense, I felt really bombarded by that point, and, uncharacteristically, left the theater while that scene was still going. When I got home I read that that was actually Austin Butler in a crazy good recreation of that bit of film, the only scene where he wore prosthetics to give the appearance Elvis had toward the end, the heaviness, fluid retention, general very unwell-ness. Now I wish I had not left early. Will have to try to catch it somewhere sometime.

    Great review, thank you.

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