It’s been a while since I felt beaten up by a movie. Leave it to Baz Luhrmann to end that lucky streak. And with a movie about Elvis Presley, no less — hardly a subject to approach casually. Elvis, in the epic tradition of all of Luhrmann’s work, is a brash, overwhelming experience. It’s a carnival in movie form: a grand, restless, swirling contraption that’s as grotesque as any bloody-mouthed geek and as uncomfortably poignant as a sad clown. It’s too much. Yet if it were any less excessive, it wouldn’t be as doggedly effective as it often is.
Elvis begins at the end — not of Presley’s life, but of the life that consumed and distorted it: Colonel Thomas Parker, his longtime manager. Played by a jowly and insistently unappealing Tom Hanks, Parker is the grandmaster of the tragic spectacle to follow. He is our narrator and admonisher, the man with the megaphone and the whip. A bedridden nobody with the movie starts, Parker can barely get this story out without being haunted by his own memories, particularly of a moment when, late in Elvis’ life, the performer is practically sleepwalking from exhaustion, and Parker says, “The only thing that matters is that that man gets up on that stage tonight.” There he is: the King (played by a sensational Austin Butler) sprawled on the ground, barely alive and being pumped with fluids so that he can be trotted out on stage like a reanimated corpse.
It’s no wonder Parker’s narration of this story, which frames the entire movie, bears the gutless stench of a deathbed confession. Parker tells us that the death of Elvis was in large part the fault of the public’s love and adoration, its unceasing need for more, to which Elvis became as addicted as he was to the barbiturates and alcohol that spelled his certain downfall. We already know better. Colonel Parker is preparing us for a story of Elvis’ rise and fall, which is in turn the story of his own rise and fall. Man, myth, and legend are collapsed into one hip-heaving, acutely talented, blue-eyed soulster whose tragedy is preordained by the fact that his story still belongs to the man who bled it dry.
If you want the usual biopic bullet points, this movie’s got them. But we should know by now that the director of Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby will not give it to us in a straight line. This is, yes, the story of Elvis’ life, from impoverished and troubled birth to premature, unglamorous death. But every stop along the way is given the weight of a totalizing, world-shaking event: Before Elvis gets big, he’s already big. His wandering into a Black church and catching the spirit as a shoeless child in Tupelo, Mississippi, rings out with the audacious grandeur of an event that will change the course of history — which, in its way, it was. Elvis hits the necessary details, carves out the storied, prominent eras in Elvis’ personal and professional life: his Beale Street era, his Hollywood era, his time in the military, his courtship of and marriage to Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge), his fated run at Vegas’ International Hotel, and on and on, flashing backward to his origin and forward to the long aftermath of his death, when we meet Parker again and are forced to remember just who it is that’s telling this story.
When it works, it’s contagious. We largely have Austin Butler to thank for that. How Butler survived this role, with all of its ecstatic rebounds and tireless, jittery, sweat-stained feats of performance, is a mystery. Maybe the best thing you can say about Elvis is that the movie knows what it has. Luhrmann’s movie doesn’t need an Elvis impersonator. It needs an actor who can survive the movie — who can not only stand out from Luhrmann’s heavy sensationalism, but who can also convince us that beneath all the shiny surfaces and visual outbursts, there’s a person. Butler’s Elvis is a convincing performer — you believe, quite incredibly, that this is a man people couldn’t take their eyes off of — but he’s also credibly flawed, and daring.
He’s also tasked with oozing sex appeal, and this works, too. Elvis is an incredibly horny movie. It has to be. You aren’t getting this story right if we cannot believe that the man’s hip-shaking was worthy of his being labeled a public enemy. Luhrmann of course has to drive the point home with energetic tastelessness, dialing up the ooh’s and aah’s until they resemble outright orgasms. Butler’s job is to make that plausible: He has to meet Luhrmann blow for blow. The movie’s makeup and costuming team gives him a deft assist, caking him in sweat as thick as motor oil when he’s performing and squeezing him into criminally tight jeans meant to get the imagination going. In the end, it’s still up to Butler to do all of this and give Luhrmann’s style the soul it needs to make it all make sense.
Elvis is an entertaining movie about the man’s sex appeal and a pretty good movie about his life, even as it never dials things back enough for anyone to catch a breath. Luhrmann’s zigzagging, triumphantly kitschy style suits his subject. But a movie about Elvis made on this scale, even by a director like Luhrmann, whose work isn’t immediately recognizable as political, is saddled with other responsibilities. This is, after all, a story inseparable from the history and public sentiment that surrounded Presley. That includes the political efforts to ban him, but it also includes the attitudes behind those efforts — the Black styles and sounds that made even the white Elvis threatening. He’s credited with a sexual awakening among young people, it’s true, but he was also a vehicle for Black music finding its way onto white radio stations, Black movement slipping into white living rooms.
Maybe unsurprisingly, then, Elvis puts more than a little effort into settling the matter of Elvis and race — Elvis and Black musicians, that is. It starts with that early memory of him slipping into Black spaces as a child and being caught up in the music that he would grow to love. It puts some of his most famous songs — Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” for example — back into the mouths of the Black musicians who first wrote them. It situates Elvis the man as an appreciator of that music, a joyous recipient and beneficiary, not the thief many have claimed him to be over the years. Elvis the legend, meanwhile, becomes inseparable from the music he loved. Even the movie’s engagement with the history and politics of Elvis’ moment seems to come back to this. We get news of the deaths of JFK, RFK, and MLK, as we must. But in that last case, what registers more urgently is Mahalia Jackson’s performance at the fallen civil rights leader’s funeral — a curious moment that starts with the funeral telecast playing in the background of Elvis and Priscilla bickering (yet again) before Mahalia’s voice catches Elvis’ attention. What arises after this is the era of Elvis getting back to his roots, in a way, juggling the need to make political statements, as his performances in defiance of obscenity laws plainly did, with his desire to play it safe and stay out of it.
B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey), Little Richard (Alton Mason), Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), and Mahalia Jackson (Cle Morgan) flow into and out of this movie with an ease that amounts to more than inspiration for Elvis. They’re seen performing at length, with Elvis often watching; by the time he performs the covers of Black music that would come to define his career, we’ve already been educated on the source. Even a couple of the needle-drops sprinkled throughout modernize Elvis’ tunes by way of hip hop and other styles that point back to Black music, just as, in the movie’s depiction, Elvis openly points back to that music. This doesn’t quite amount to a confrontation with the problem at hand, which isn’t only a matter of theft or inspiration, but of profit. On this subject, the movie imbues its throng of legendary Black musicians with world-weary understanding. It underestimates their anger, more invested in Elvis’ appreciation of them. Whether that’s a useful trade-off will depend on us.
Elvis is in many ways, about “us” — the people out there in the crowd that the King, in his International Hotel performances, would make a point of gazing back at, turning up the house lights to give faces to the anonymous throng of superfans staring up at him in the dark. It’s another of the more effective threads in this movie — Elvis’ relationship to the masses. Luhrmann’s movies are overripe with basic scenes that seem to have been shredded and put back together by a madman with a poisoned genius for finding ecstasy in even the smallest things. Watching Elvis feels a little like being electrocuted. But as a document of the loving masses, and of the thrill of seeing Elvis perform, this is all apt. As is the central tragedy of the film. In the end, we’re back in that hospital room with Parker, hearing the full, winding arc of his choice to sell out his and Elvis’ souls. He grafted both of their fates into a contract that would render Parker into both Faust and the devil and Elvis into a dying machine, performing to his last breath with the helplessness of a man who seems to have no choice, but whose fatigue never dulled his love for giving all he had to give. It’s an exhausting movie. That probably means that it’s doing something right.