According to fable, in 1945, Elvis Presley’s teacher heard him sing and subsequently brought him to the principal to show off his impressive talent. The principal recommended that Presley enter the Alabama-Mississippi State Fair’s talent show. Although it was Presley’s first public performance to many, he only took home a humble fifth place. Stories like this can show a more human part of him that contrasts with the deified figure memorialized in the popular consciousness. This is something that Baz Luhrmann never understands when making a film, including his most recent disappointment: “Elvis.”
“Elvis” is the newest soulless music biopic that takes some of the most iconic musicians in modern history and turns their stories into cynical rise-and-fall arcs that hit the beats of an obsolete screenplay formula. The film spans the entire life of Presley (Austin Butler) without ever asking the question: What new insight can I add to a life already as exceptional as Elvis Presley’s? Instead of telling the story from Presley’s point of view, or that of an omniscient narrator, Luhrmann shows it from that of his infamous manager “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). He then rushes through the main bullet points of Presley’s life, from having his big break with a cover of “That’s All Right” to him meeting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and residing at the Las Vegas International Hotel.
If you were to ask who is the worst filmmaker I’ve ever witnessed, I would immediately answer: Baz Luhrman. What makes him different from other directors is that those known for being the worst directors are mainly those with boring, forgettable cinematographic styles. Luhrman, on the other hand, is a true auteur who I despise. His excessive camera movements, grotesque visual effects, hammy performances, and camera zooms done in post-production (my biggest cinematic pet peeve) make Michael Bay look like Martin Scorsese.
The screenplay especially doesn’t help in the slightest. Luhrmann and his collaborator Craig Pierce use the voiceover narration as less of a crutch and more of a full-on wheelchair. The Colonel trying to analyze Elvis’ life was so on the nose that Dhar Mann must’ve been inspired by the dialogue. The pacing is also a mess, with its two hour, 39 minute runtime — the first 40 minutes of which hastily rushed through all of Elvis’ significant successes and controversies — feeling staggeringly long.
As for the flamboyant worlds that Luhrman is shallowly known for, instead of making brand new mistakes, he decides to make the exact same ones that were rife in “The Great Gatsby.” Once again, the movie glorifies the setting and environment that Baz is theoretically supposed to criticize. Although this is a critique frequently leveled against directors like Scorsese, the difference is that his films have moments of raw disillusionment and terror that the audience and characters will feel in contrast to the idealized environment. Luhrman seems to be sickened by the idea of his films having moments of raw emotion, and instead wants tragic scenes to be as stylized and “cool” as every other scene in the movie.
Luhrman tends to get really great actors to do caricatures of themselves or other people. I am aware of the praise that Austin Butler received for playing the titular role, and in my opinion, he did a pretty good impression of Elvis’ iconic voice. Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks didn’t seem to remember how to make a natural foreign accent, which is weird for a man who did a great European accent in “The Terminal.” It also doesn’t help that he seems to be modeled after the Penguin, a cartoonish appearance that undermines the real things that the Colonel has done.
Once again, Baz Luhrman uses these now wasted subjects and bloated budgets to create shallow scenes of action, while also pretending to actually be saying something deep and complex about the characters or settings. My concluding remarks to this review are: Just watch “All That Jazz.” It’s a better Elvis movie than “Elvis.”