When it comes to making a biopic, every production is going to take a different route. If you’re “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you’ll use the real-life voice of Freddie Mercury for songs played in the diegetic context of concerts or recordings. If you’re “Rocketman,” you treat the biopic more like a musical, with the life of Elton John framed around a series of his songs performed as elaborate musical numbers. And if you’re Baz Luhrmann (“The Great Gatsby”), a director known for his maximalist approach, directing a biopic about the life of Elvis Presley, well … you end up making it more like a fever dream.
“Elvis” follows the titular Elvis Presley (Austin Butler, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) through his rise and fall (read: rise and death) as a musician through the eyes of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, “Finch”). It’s a marathon of a movie, taking you through multiple decades and through many different phases of Elvis’s life — from his early and provocative beginnings to his time in the army to his Las Vegas residency and everything in between — framed around his complex (and often contentious) relationship with the Colonel. It’s fitting that the beginning of Elvis and the Colonel’s management relationship starts at a carnival because the whole movie kind of feels like one, with flashing lights and the pace of a tilt-a-whirl.
Like any film brought to the screen by any of the capital-D Directors we see today, “Elvis” is covered in Luhrmann’s fingerprints — from the ostentatious visuals to the extraordinary attention to the music. There’s certainly a lot to look at throughout the film: flashy period-specific costumes and accessories, frenetic editing and scenes that focus primarily on creating a spectacle. “Elvis” also has an unusual soundtrack that combines period-specific music with more modern tunes, a feature that’s becoming one of Luhrmann’s signature touches. However, deliberate needle drops of Elvis songs and performances of blues tunes are overshadowed by odd music choices: dramatic strings playing over Elvis songs, bizarre inclusions of songs by modern-day artists (such as a jarring Doja Cat addition), even an I-must’ve-heard-that-wrong hint of instrumentals from ’90s hits like “Toxic” and “Backstreet’s Back” hidden in a montage. Considering that Elvis is a musical biopic, it’s strange that Luhrmann seemed to think that Elvis’s music couldn’t speak for itself.
“Elvis” often feels like a film that’s bitten off more than it can chew, having to resort to odd techniques to keep the story moving at the breakneck pace it adopts from the first minute. This usually means montages — so many montages that it’s lead to a number of jokes about “Elvis” feeling more like a 160-minute trailer rather than a film. Between the montages, newspaper clippings and strange transitions, the film almost feels cut together like a documentary — a documentary that maybe should’ve been a mini-series, or at least one that should’ve narrowed its focus a little bit more.
It’s frustrating to watch a film that feels like it’s trying to do too much and still manages to miss the mark. Although characters in the film mention Elvis’s privilege as a white man through his relationship with Black artists, like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr., “Cyrano”), these interactions fade into the background of a movie with too much else to focus on. So much happens over the course of the film that it’s hard to keep it all straight. By the time Elvis checks into a hospital for exhaustion about three-quarters of the way into the film, you can’t help but feel a little exhausted too.
Part of this may be because of the insistent focus on Colonel Tom Parker rather than the titular star — and it doesn’t help that Hanks’s performance, buoyed by harsh prosthetics and a baffling accent, is surprisingly apathetic and uninspiring. (Considering that “Elvis” is the movie that gave him COVID-19 way back in 2020, it’s possible that Hanks either took it personally, or the COVID-19 fog persisted once the “Elvis” team returned to set.)
Colonel Tom Parker begins and ends the movie assuring the audience that he is not a villain, but is presented as a cartoonishly villainous character throughout. His primary motivation behind promoting Elvis is that he’s a white man who sings a Black style of music, a successful marketing technique which gives the Colonel the air and confidence of a con man rather than a manager. As a result, it’s difficult to generate sympathy for a character whose enigmatic past is kept a mystery from the audience, who treats his client like a carnival attraction rather than a human being and who always has the equivalent of cartoon money signs in his eyes. In all, the Colonel’s presence in the film feels oversized — probably because Hanks, and not someone less famous, is in the role.
But if the Colonel is mostly a waste of space (and runtime), then Butler’s Elvis is the exact opposite. Butler, an actor with humble beginnings, has been the face of this movie since he was cast back in 2018. In a virtual press conference attended by The Daily last February, Butler and Luhrmann outlined the many ways that Butler prepared for the role — from a year of voice lessons to the unique way they mixed Butler and Elvis’s vocals to achieve the voice of the character. At the time, without the film to back it up, it felt hollow to praise Butler for his hard work; now, after seeing the results, it’s well worth the wait.
Everything Butler does as Elvis — from his low-and-slow Southern drawl to the small mannerisms to the way he moves his fingers — is captivating. He’s appropriately charming and easy to root for; he’s deliberately reminiscent of the King without beating us over the head with it. In a movie that jets about from place to place without finding a place to land, Butler holds the whole thing together, brilliantly capturing the the showmanship and joy (and sweat) of Elvis on stage and off. Like most films that read as over-the-top, the best moments in “Elvis” come when the theatrics are toned down and the montages and melodramatic narration are abandoned, leaving us with just Butler’s impressive performance and his complex dynamics with the people around him. After filming wrapped, Butler, in a moment eerily reminiscent of Elvis himself, was hospitalized with exhaustion — a move that demonstrates how much of himself he put into the role (and a story that conveniently generates additional Oscar buzz).
Although it’s true that I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out how to turn “hunk of burnin’ love” into a pun about “Elvis” being a hot mess, it’s hard to call “Elvis” explicitly bad. Maybe it’s my potentially unwarranted sensibilities to respect Baz Luhrmann for his unapologetic approach to his craft — that his vision is so strong and so clear that I’m willing to forgive him for missing the mark at times. Maybe it’s the nostalgic appreciation for the Elvis tunes scattered throughout the movie that are unequivocally good songs from an artist who was truly revolutionary. Maybe it’s the quality of Butler’s performance — which is, truly, the only thing that grounds the entire film. Maybe it’s the sense that a solidly good 45-ish minutes of scenes tucked into a two-and-a-half hour runtime is better than nothing.
In the end, though, Luhrmann does succeed in his mission. Viewers of “Elvis” are likely to walk away with a newfound desire to listen to Elvis’ music. Austin Butler will walk away a star. And a new generation of movie-goers will have greater context for a legend whose name is spoken with great reverence but whose nuances may be lost for subsequent generations. He took a person whose appearance is most associated with imitations in Las Vegas wedding chapels and made him into a real person — but I wish that he hadn’t thought he needed modern music and hasty montages to do it.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.