Baz Luhrmann is a lot like any other director, only more so. Likewise, Elvis has a lot of the scenes and conflicts we’ve come to expect after 20 years with the musical biopic format, only in this case with the volume cranked to 11 and the saturation pinned at 100; sameness to the point that it starts to become hallucinatory and inspired.
Elvis – in so many ways a sort of kitsch-art earnest version of Walk Hard – is to the traditional musician biopic what Las Vegas is to a traditional city. An idealized reality so manically constructed that it becomes a sort of grotesque, like an absurd parody of Americana rendered in pastel Formica and crushed velvet. It’s real sicko shit, and in that sense it’s hard not to love it. Has there ever been a Baz Luhrmann subject so perfectly suited to his brand of gaudy maximalism? I left the theater coughing up sequins.
Luhrmann has essentially jerry-rigged his own version of the old Liberty Valance adage. Elvis‘s guiding principle is, “when the Velvet Elvis painting becomes fact, shoot the Velvet.”
Luhrmann’s story (co-written by Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) is framed around, and periodically narrated by, Colonel Tom Parker, who is, and I’m not exaggerating any of these points for comedic effect here, a wicked Dutch carnie. He’s played by Tom Hanks, with a crooked witch nose and balloon animal jowls, and Hanks’ accent is pretty ridiculous. But then again, so is everything else in Elvis, and so is the idea of an accented Dutchman attempting to turn himself into a cigar-chomping Southern dandy like Tom Parker did in the first place. Think Foghorn Leghorn meets Goldmember from Austin Powers.
Tom Parker is an old-school carnival man, who lives for the old “snow job,” where you grift a room full of rubes so well that they gladly fork over their money and leave smiling. He proudly calls himself The Snow Man, and in Elvis, Parker believes he’s found his ultimate sideshow act — the first white man ever to attempt to dance using the lower half of his body. If there’s a major flaw in Elvis (other than Luhrmann’s whole shtick in general, which one should either go in expecting or avoid altogether) it’s that the framing makes it hard not to wish it was a Tom Parker biopic instead of an Elvis one. Give that job to Matthew Wiener, I’d love to see the Mad Men guy’s take on a carnival kitsch Don Draper.
For his part, Elvis Presley (played by sleepy-eyed, pouty-lipped youngster Austin Butler — who may be the most Australian-looking non-Australian dude I’ve ever seen) is depicted as the identical twin of a stillborn sibling, who grew up imbibing black musical traditions thanks to growing up in a black section of Memphis, and all sorts of other now-biopic clichés that also happen to be true — because how many biopic tropes were already built partially out of the Elvis legend? Print the velvet. As such, Elvis doesn’t just see blues musicians steamrolling juke joints and charismatic black preachers captivating tent revivals foreshadowing his future persona, he hallucinates expressionistic, kaleidoscopic montages of them.
One of Luhrmann’s charms (or infuriating tics, depending on your perspective) is that he either can’t or won’t shoot a straight scene of Elvis singing one of his hits (which, as a fan of early rockabilly Elvis music, I would’ve actually appreciated). Instead, he’ll film about seven seconds of one, before the whole thing starts to melt and bubble and distort, transforming into some kind of cruel hallucinatory medley that evolves and modulates and becomes something else entirely. Oh, you wanted to hear “Don’t Be Cruel?” Fuck you, here are five different slowed-down dramatic versions of “Fools Rush In.” “Jailhouse Rock?” Nope, “It’s Alright Mama” remixed as a contemporary rap track for some reason. Baz Luhrmann’s take on Elvis is sort of like reality as filtered through psychedelic mushrooms, where you can’t quite navigate a hallway but you’re transfixed by the texture of the carpet.
There is something to this approach. To attempt to get at the root of who Elvis was as a person would probably be a fool’s errand. This was a guy who essentially became a cultural product as a teenager and died a bloated lounge act at 42. There was no time in his adult life where he was a fully-formed human separate from a stage persona. Luhrmann’s choice is to shoot him as a sort of Snow White with Tom Parker as the wicked witch. We might not learn what makes Elvis tick, but Luhrmann isn’t so concerned with that. He’s more interested in Elvis’s effect on an audience, mostly of young girls and budding gays, who see this First White Man Ever To Move His Butt On Purpose, and absolutely lose their minds. He’s not depicting music so much as collective hysteria, which is firmly within the Luhrmann wheelhouse, and oddly electrifying.
Why not shoot the velvet? And who better to shoot said velvet than Baz Luhrmann, Australia’s polyester Spielberg? You’ll leave feeling slightly nauseous, bludgeoned by kitch and blinded by sparkly plastic, but considering the subject, isn’t that as it should be?