‘Elvis’ Review: Shocking the King Back to Life

Austin Butler plays the singer, with Tom Hanks as his devilish manager, in Baz Luhrmann’s operatic, chaotic anti-biopic.

Credit...Warner Bros.
Elvis
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Biography, Drama, Music
PG-13
2h 39m

My first and strongest memory of Elvis Presley is of his death. He was only 42 but he already seemed, in 1977, to belong to a much older world. In the 45 years since, his celebrity has become almost entirely necrological. Graceland is a pilgrimage spot and a mausoleum.

Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” — a biopic in the sense that “Heartbreak Hotel” is a Yelp review — works mightily to dispel this funerary gloom. Luhrmann, whose relationship to the past has always been irreverent and anti-nostalgic, wants to shock Elvis back to life, to imagine who he was in his own time and what he might mean in ours.

The soundtrack shakes up the expected playlist with jolts of hip-hop (extended into a suite over the final credits), slivers of techno and slatherings of synthetic film-score schmaltz. (The composer and executive music producer is Elliott Wheeler.) The sonic message — and the film’s strongest argument for its subject’s relevance — is that Presley’s blend of blues, gospel, pop and country continues to mutate and pollinate in the musical present. There’s still a whole lot of shaking going on.

As a movie, though, “Elvis” lurches and wobbles, caught in a trap only partly of its own devising. Its rendering of a quintessentially American tale of race, sex, religion and money teeters between glib revisionism and zombie mythology, unsure if it wants to be a lavish pop fable or a tragic melodrama.

The ghoulish, garish production design, by Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife and longtime creative partner) and Karen Murphy, is full of carnival sleaze and Vegas vulgarity. All that satin and rhinestone, filtered through Mandy Walker’s pulpy, red-dominated cinematography, conjures an atmosphere of lurid, frenzied eroticism. You might mistake this for a vampire movie.

It wouldn’t entirely be a mistake. The central plot casts Elvis (Austin Butler) as the victim of a powerful and devious bloodsucking fiend. That would be Col. Tom Parker, who supplies voice-over narration and is played by Tom Hanks with a mountain of prosthetic goo, a bizarre accent and a yes-it’s-really-me twinkle in his eyes. Parker was Presley’s manager for most of his career, and Hanks portrays him as part small-time grifter, part full-blown Mephistopheles.

“I didn’t kill Elvis,” Parker says, though the movie implies otherwise. “I made Elvis.” In the Colonel’s mind, they were “the showman and the snowman,” equal partners in a supremely lucrative long con.

Luhrmann’s last feature was an exuberant, candy-colored — and, I thought, generally underrated — adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” and the Colonel is in some ways a Gatsbyesque character. He’s a self-invented man, an arriviste on the American scene, a “mister nobody from nowhere” trading in the unstable currencies of wishing and seeming. He isn’t a colonel (Elvis likes to call him “admiral”) and his real name isn’t Tom Parker. The mystery of his origins is invoked to sinister effect but not fully resolved. If we paid too much attention to him, he might take over the movie, something that almost happens anyway.

Luhrmann seems more interested in the huckster than in the artist. But he himself is the kind of huckster who understands the power of art, and is enough of an artist to make use of that power.

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Credit...Warner Bros.

As a Presley biography, “Elvis” is not especially illuminating. The basic stuff is all there, as it would be on Wikipedia. Elvis is haunted by the death of his twin brother, Jesse, and devoted to his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson). Relations with his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), are more complicated. The boy grows up poor in Tupelo, Miss., and Memphis, finds his way into the Sun Records recording studio at the age of 19, and proceeds to set the world on fire. Then there’s the Army, marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), Hollywood, a comeback broadcast in 1968, a long residency in Las Vegas, divorce from Priscilla and the sad, bloated spectacle of his last years.

Butler is fine in the few moments of offstage drama that the script allows, but most of the emotional action is telegraphed in Luhrmann’s usual emphatic, breathless style. The actor seems most fully Elvis — as Elvis, the film suggests, was most truly himself — in front of an audience. Those hips don’t lie, and Butler captures the smoldering physicality of Elvis the performer, as well as the playfulness and vulnerability that drove the crowds wild. The voice can’t be imitated, and the movie wisely doesn’t try, remixing actual Elvis recordings rather than trying to replicate them.

At his first big performance, in a dance hall in Texarkana, Ark., where he shares a bill with Hank Snow (David Wenham), Snow’s son, Jimmie (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and other country acts, Elvis steps out in a bright pink suit, heavy eye makeup and glistening pompadour. A guy in the audience shouts a homophobic slur, but after a few bars that guy’s date and every other woman in the room is screaming her lungs out, “having feelings she’s not sure she should enjoy,” as the Colonel puts it. Gladys is terrified, and the scene carries a heavy charge of sexualized danger. Elvis is a modern Orpheus, and these maenads are about to tear him to pieces. In another scene, back in Memphis, Elvis watches Little Richard (Alton Mason) tearing up “Tutti Frutti” (a song he would later cover) and sees a kindred spirit.

The sexual anarchy and gender nonconformity of early rock ’n’ roll is very much in Luhrmann’s aesthetic wheelhouse. Its racial complications less so. “Elvis” puts its hero in the presence of Black musicians including Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who offers career advice. An early montage — repeated so often that it becomes a motif — finds the boy Elvis (Chaydon Jay) simultaneously peeking into a juke joint where Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) plays “That’s All Right Mama” and catching the spirit at a tent revival.

There’s no doubt that Elvis, like many white Southerners of his class and generation, loved blues and gospel. (He loved country and western, too, a genre the film mostly dismisses.) He also profited from the work of Black musicians and from industry apartheid, and a movie that won’t grapple with the dialectic of love and theft that lies at the heart of American popular music can’t hope to tell the whole story.

In the early days, Elvis’s nemesis is the segregationist Mississippi senator James Eastland (Nicholas Bell), whose fulminations against sex, race-mixing and rock ’n’ roll are intercut with a galvanic performance of “Trouble.” Later, Elvis is devastated by the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who was killed “just three miles from Graceland”) and Robert F. Kennedy. These moments, which try to connect Elvis with the politics of his era, are really episodes in his relationship with Colonel Parker, who wants to keep his cash cow away from controversy.

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Credit...Kane Skennar/Warner Bros.

When Elvis defies the Colonel — breaking out in full hip-shaking gyrations when he’s been told “not to wiggle so much as a finger”; turning a network Christmas special into a sweaty, intimate, raucous return to form — the movie wants us to see his conscience at work, as well as his desire for creative independence. But Luhrmann’s sense of history is too muddled and sentimental to give the gestures that kind of weight.

And Elvis himself remains a cipher, a symbol, more myth than flesh and blood. His relationships with Vernon, Priscilla and the entourage known as “the Memphis mafia” receive cursory treatment. His appetites for food, sex and drugs barely get that much.

Who was he? The movie doesn’t provide much of an answer. But younger viewers, whose firsthand experience of the King is even thinner than mine, might come away from “Elvis” with at least an inkling of why they should care. In the end, this isn’t a biopic or a horror movie or a cautionary parable: It’s a musical, and the music is great. Remixed, yes, and full of sounds that purists might find anachronistic. But there was never anything pure about Elvis Presley, except maybe his voice, and hearing it in all its aching, swaggering glory, you understand how it set off an earthquake.

Like a lot of people who write about American popular culture — or who just grew up in the second half of the 20th century — I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Elvis. “Elvis,” for all its flaws and compromises, made me want to listen to him, as if for the first time.

Elvis
Rated PG-13. Rock ’n’ roll, sex, drugs. Running time: 2 hours 39 minutes. In theaters.