Baz Luhrmann’s movies—even the great ones, like his 1996 Shakespeare-via-Tiger Beat romance Romeo + Juliet, or The Great Gatsby, from 2013, a fringed shimmy of decadence and loneliness—are loathed by many for what they see as the director’s garishness, his adoration of spectacle, his penchant for headache-inducing, mincemeat-and-glitter editing. But in 2022, in a culture where long-form series storytelling reigns supreme, Luhrmann’s devotion to two-and-a-half-hour bursts of excess is pleasingly old-fashioned, like a confetti blast from a cannon at a county fair. It’s true that his movies don’t always work, or rarely work all the way though, and that’s certainly the case with Elvis, his sequined jumpsuit of a biopic playing out of competition at the 75th Cannes Film Festival. At times it’s barely a movie—the first hour or so is exceptionally fragmented and frenetic, as if Luhrmann were time-traveling through a holographic rendering of Elvis Presley’s life, dipping and darting through the significant events with little time to touch down. But through all the arty overindulgences, one truth shines through: Luhrmann loves Elvis so much it hurts. And in a world where there’s always, supposedly, a constant stream of new things to love, or at least to binge-watch, love of Elvis—our American pauper king with a cloth-of-gold voice—feels like a truly pure thing.
Luhrmann and his co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner use the story of Elvis’ supremely crooked manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, lurking beneath prosthetic jowls), to frame the larger, more glorious and more tragic story of Elvis. Though he was born in Tupelo, Mississippi—his identical twin, Jesse Garon, died at birth—Elvis grew up poor in Memphis, adoring and being adored by his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson). Luhrmann shows us Elvis as a preadolescent, splitting his time between a juke joint and a revival tent down the road. (Too young to get into the former, he could only peer through a crack in the wall, entranced by the Black blues guys performing inside.) These are the twin poles of young Elvis’ life, the foundation for all that came after, and Luhrmann connects them in one extremely stylized shot: in Elvis world, gospel and blues are literally connected by one dirt road. This junior version of Elvis goes back and forth freely, drinking deeply from one well before moving to the other, and back again.
His rise happens quickly, and before you know it, he’s become the Elvis we know, or the one we think we know: he’s played by Austin Butler, who goes beyond merely replicating Elvis’ signature moves (though he’s terrific at that); he seems to be striving to conjure some phantasmal fingerprint. For long stretches of the movie, Butler’s Elvis doesn’t really have many lines: we see him, in his pre-fame years, jumping out of the truck he drives for a living and walking down a Memphis street, swinging a guitar in one hand a lunchbox in the other. Did the real-life Elvis actually do this? Doubtful. But isn’t it exactly what you want to see in a movie?
Before long, our movie Elvis has landed a slot performing on the Louisiana Hayride, and Sam Phillips over at Sun Studios—who specializes in “race records,” music made by Black performers—takes a chance on him at the behest of his assistant, Marion Keisker, who hears something in the kid. Elvis cuts a record. Then he’s jiggling onstage in a loose pink suit, its supple fabric hiding more than it reveals, but even so, the world gets a hint at the secrets contained therein. The girls, and most of the boys, too, go nuts.
Butler conjures the guilelessness of Elvis’ face, his soft yet chiseled cheekbones, the look in his eyes that says, “I’m up for anything—are you?” He and Luhrmann hop through the major events of Presley’s life, sometimes going for long stretches without taking a breath. Elvis is exhausting, a mess; it’s also exhilarating, a crazy blur you can’t look away from. (Catherine Martin’s costume and production design is, as always, exemplary—period-perfect but also brushed with imaginative flourishes.) We see Elvis shopping at his beloved Lansky Brothers, lured in because one of his favorite musicians, B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) shops there. We see him succumbing to the dangerous manipulations of Colonel Parker, and later kicking against them, most notably as he mounts his 1968 comeback special. (He was supposed to put on a garish Christmas sweater and sing some piece of holiday dreck, not become the stuff of legend in a black leather suit that, you just know, would be hot to the touch if only you could get close enough to it.)
But as we know, Elvis loses that fight. Colonel Parker sends a quack known as Dr. Nick to pump him full of drugs, to keep him on his feet even as he’s going out of his mind. The tragedy escalates. Does Luhrmann show us the real Elvis, or is he just re-embroidering the Elvis who already lives in our imagination? The answer seems to be that Luhrmann sees equal value in fact and myth. Though Elvis more or less follows the facts as we know them, there are moments of invention that are piercing. When Elvis’ long-suffering wife Priscilla (played by Olivia DeJonge) finally leaves him, he chases after her, rushing down the staircase at Graceland in pants and a purple robe, a drugged-out mess. She can’t take it anymore; she’s got to leave, and she’s taking little Lisa Marie with her. Elvis stands there in bare feet, begging her not to go. And when he realizes he can’t stop her, he says, more in defeat than in hopefulness, “When you’re 40 and I’m 50, we’ll be back together—you’ll see.” Even if Elvis never really uttered that line, its map of romantic longing had long been written in his voice. In Elvis, when Butler sings, it’s Elvis’ voice that streams out, in lustrous ribbons of recklessness, of ardor, of hope for the future. That voice is a repository of every joy and misery that life could possibly hold.
When the trailer for Elvis was released, a few months back, the responses on social media, and among people I know, ranged from “That looks unhinged! I’m dying to see it!” to “I can’t even look at that thing,” to “What accent, exactly, is Tom Hanks trying to achieve?” (The movie, incidentally, explains the unidentifiable diction of this man without a country, and probably without a soul.) In the movie’s last moments, Luhrmann recreates one of the saddest Elvis remnants, a live performance of “Unchained Melody” from June of 1977, just two months before his death. Butler, his face puffed out with prosthetics, sits at a grand piano littered with Coca Cola cups and a discarded terrycloth towel or two. The song, a swallow’s swoop of longing, begins pouring out of Elvis’s wrecked body—but as we watch, Luhrmann pulls a mystical switch, and footage of the real Elvis replaces the magnificent Butler-as-Elvis doppelgänger we’ve been watching. For a few confusing moments, the real Elvis is no longer a ghost—he has returned to us, an actor playing himself, and we see that as good as that Butler kid was, there’s no comparison to the real thing.
But the feeling of relief is fleeting. Elvis, now gone for more than 40 years, is a ghost, no matter how passionately Luhrmann and Butler have tried to reconstitute his ectoplasm. The only consolation is that when a person is no longer a person, he is at last free to become a dream. In the final moments of Elvis, Luhrmann returns his beloved subject to that world, like a fisherman freeing his catch. “Lonely rivers flow/to the sea, to the sea,” the song tells us, as the true Elvis swims back to his home of safety—he’s better off as a dream, maybe, safe from everyone who might hurt or use him. But for a few hours there, he seemed to walk among us once again, a sighting that no one would believe if we tried to tell them. But we saw him. We really did. And then he slipped away, having had enough of our claim over him, if never enough of our love.
Correction, July 5
The original version of this story misstated the film’s screenwriters; Jeremy Doner was omitted.
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