I have been an enormous fan of director Baz Luhrmann ever since his 1992 debut Strictly Ballroom. I have always found him a fascinating artist, because he trained in theatre – Strictly was a play before it was a film – yet works in cinema, and has a tendency to bring a theatricalised excess and a heightened sense of reality to his work. He has been making films for 30 years, and has such a distinctive style that it only takes seconds of any given film to reveal itself as one of his. That said, while I am not convinced his 2022 biographical film Elvis is his worst – that probably remains his mishandled and ill-conceived historical epic Australia (2008) – it is definitely a firm contender for his all-time second-worst. As with Australia the problem is not Luhrmann’s trademark style; it is how Luhrmann has applied it. This is a movie that has slipped between the proverbial two stools. It is a something that I suspect is not fully satisfactory to anyone.
Elvis tracks the life of titular singer Elvis Presley (played by Austin Butler) from his impoverished youth through to his untimely death in 1977, but particularly focuses on his relationship with impresario “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). It was Parker who lifted Presley to national and then global fame, but it was also Parker who manipulated his personal life and career in shocking and exploitative ways. There is a tremendous opportunity in the material for Luhrmann to co-write and direct a superb two-hander, and to make something that is little more interesting than the typical musician biopic that makes near-annual excursions into the multiplexes (Ray, Walk the Line, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman – choose your artist). Luhrmann fumbles that opportunity.
Here’s the key problem: there are effectively two films playing out at the same time. In one of them, Austin Butler gives a properly great performance as Elvis Presley – no small feat – that is driven by naturalistic acting and a realistic environment. In the other, Tom Hanks dominates with an eccentric performance that is perfectly in keeping with many former Luhrmann productions. He would not seem out of place opposite Jim Broadbent’s Zidler in Moulin Rouge (2000), for example, but against Butler he is garishly over-the-top. It is not Hanks’ fault, of course. It was up to Luhrmann to make this odd chimera play more consistently, and he failed to do so.
Neither half feels particularly enthused. The inventive use of contemporary pop music that typifies Luhrmann’s best work comes in fits and starts, but never seems willing to commit to making a statement. It almost manages to use modern hip-hop and R&B sounds to reflect Elvis’ popularising of African-American musical styles, but it is as if a fear of controversy or offence has caused its director to shy away.
There are some effective elements. Butler, as noted, is a fine Elvis. Kelvin Harrison Jr makes an impact as fellow musician B.B. King that is greater than the size of his role. Olivia DeJonge is decent as Priscilla Beaulieu.
There is a brief sequence in the middle of Elvis where Presley seizes control of a televised concert (the famous ’68 comeback special) from the Colonel. It is an arresting and vibrant sequence that shows the singer engaged in the artistic process of performing popular music, and suggests a much more interesting and fascinating account of Elvis Presley than the film Luhrmann presents. It drives home the unfortunate case that Elvis is frankly a colossal missed opportunity. Whether through indecision, uncharacteristic timidity, or studio influence, the end result is a poor showing from I’m sure was an awful lot of effort.