Like the King himself, Elvis (2022) is a dazzling, bold and delicious film set at the pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll history. But like Elvis, the flamboyant source material is ultimately mishandled and met with an almost dull expression that overshadows its initial brilliance.
Mainly Baz Luhrmann – more Moulin Rouge than straight-up rock biopic a la Bohemian Rhapsody – the nearly three-hour film takes viewers on a greatest-hits tour of the life of Elvis Aaron Presley, who grew up modestly in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. sowed the seeds of musical superstardom.
Although an undoubted talent in his own right, Presley grew up on Beale Street in Memphis and gained notoriety for appropriating black music and culture for mainstream American audiences during the era of segregation – as the saying goes, “The White Boy in Black Moves.”
For young Elvis, it was the sound and style he grew up with; the sound and style of music that makes him happy. But the producers saw nothing but dollar signs with each brace of leather-clad hips. And this is where our story gets messy.
Using the performer’s unique dance move as a symbol of cultural divide and social change, the entire montage is devoted to the phenomenon of “Pelvis Elvis” (a real-life nickname given by the angry press of the time).
Still somewhat provocative by today’s standards, the camera lingers on every twitch and twist of star Austin Butler (playing Elvis) as he violently rubs his groin on a mob of screaming female fans below the stage. Not nearly as subtle. But who expects subtlety from a Baz Luhrmann film? Or an Elvis show?
The danger with both lies in the fine line between great and tacky—unfortunately, Elvis crossed that line more than once. In an unusual move, the film tells the story of Elvis’ longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, as he lies on his deathbed in a Las Vegas hospital.
Doing his best impression of the legendary nice guy played by Tom Hanks as a Hollywood slapstick, facing a crooked carny through layers of prosthetics, and with a truly confusing accent, Parker is portrayed as a cartoonish villain that undermines the story’s tension and nuance.
The character, who gleefully rubs his hands as he passes Elvis’ futures to dealers, is based on a real person, but is as clichéd and one-dimensional as it gets.
Fortunately, the same cannot be said for Elvis himself. Of course, Elvis is not a very comprehensive character study (the editing is too choppy and fast for real emotional depth). But in a stellar cast, Austin Butler manages to capture the spirit and authenticity of Elvis Presley the man and the showman without falling into caricature. He has Elvis sideburns, a gravelly voice and a trademark quiff. But he also has a heart.
The film likewise eschews the “fat Elvis” clichés of recent times and treats its subject matter respectfully without being overly reverent. Yes, there’s a scene where Elvis shoots his TV. But thankfully Luhrmann spares us fattening, giant sandwich eating montages or, worse, a dramatic Romeo + Juliet -style death scene in the toilet.
At the height of his career, Elvis Presley achieved an almost superhuman level of success and adoration. However, he still longed for more.
The desire to keep going—to sell more, earn more, be more for his family and fans—was his personal and professional bankruptcy (it’s hard to grow creatively when you’re barricaded in a Las Vegas penthouse between gigs), it came from a place of joy.
This visually stunning, inventively crafted old-school Hollywood tale doesn’t know when it’s coming out either. But in his imperfection, he rediscovers the joy of Elvis.