Obtrusive, indulgent ‘Elvis’ is another failed musical biopic

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Warner Bros./Courtesy

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Grade: 1.5/5.0

In a pan of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” critic Richard Brody’s review reads: “The movie conveys the sense of waste but not of what was wasted, of the superfluous but not of excess, and of the phony but not of the gloriously theatre of life. In its reductive way, it not only doesn’t display two opposed ideas; it offers no ideas at all.”

It’s evident that Luhrmann has strayed little from his preferred method of flashy yet lifeless filmmaking in the eight years between “The Great Gatsby” and his latest film, “Elvis.” Being charitable, it is possible to construe this dogged pursuit of an idiosyncratic style as admirable or purposefully resistant to the current mode of hypercommercial filmmaking. Then again, being charitable has never been the critic’s job.

Structurally, “Elvis” presents a compelling premise: A portrait of a working-class kid thrust into the upper echelons of celebrity and fractured by capitalist scheming, all told through the eyes of its orchestrator. The orchestrator in question is, of course, Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s longtime manager. The role is played by a bespectacled, prosthetic-augmented Tom Hanks in quite possibly the worst performance of his career.

Parker is introduced as a carny-type figure who acquires an appetite for deceit and greed through his circus roots. An early scene features him entrapping young Elvis (Austin Butler) in a maze of mirrors before making him a business proposition. This hackneyed visual motif vanishes as quickly as it surfaces, as Luhrmann shows little regard for consistency — except for being consistently mediocre. 

“Elvis” is careful to dwell on the ways in which Elvis pilfered the sound and aesthetics of southern Black musicians. The film, however, appears unsure of the extent to which it wants to indict Elvis the individual, and the measures it takes to portray a level of intimacy and comradery between Elvis and the Black community seem dubious. This is not due to any aversion to placing blame on individuals; Luhrmann is perfectly content to do so when it comes to Colonel Parker, whose garishly exaggerated features and mannerisms warp Hanks’ familiar visage into something cartoonishly sinister.

Hanks’ character isn’t the only one deficient in nuance — Elvis himself is reduced to pure archetype. This choice feels a bit more excusable, however, given the ways celebrity distorts the self into an unrecognizable state. For all the fervor surrounding Disney star Austin Butler’s casting and his subsequent embrace of method acting, he is surprisingly competent in the role. To his credit, Luhrmann made the risky yet ultimately correct (and more interesting) choice in likening Butler, a sex symbol of the TikTok era, to Presley, perhaps the defining sex symbol of the 20th century.

Luhrmann’s style is unappealing for a number of reasons: its reckless, nauseating camera movements and hyper-artificial CGI. But above all, it’s reckless in uncurbed indulgence that’s indicative of a deep-seated narcissism Luhrmann hardly strains to conceal. The film, which runs nearly three hours, is 90% Luhrmann doing Luhrmann. An especially objectionable scene features Elvis crying into a rack of shirts that shamelessly harkens back to that famous scene in “The Great Gatsby,” where Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) performs a similar maneuver. 

This moment is included in the film for the sole purpose of being self-referential; a delicious little morsel of convenience and recognizability dangled in front of the audience’s mouth in hopes that it takes the bait. Unfortunately for Luhrmann, many likely won’t.

Despite its lofty ambitions, “Elvis” is merely another entrant into the canon of biopics about some of the most celebrated and innovative musical artists which becomes — ironically — a film void of any significant artistic merit.

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].