Baz Luhrmann creates another stunning visual and emotional cinematic experience
Anyone who knows me even slightly knows what an ardent fan I am of Baz Luhrmann, at least since I first saw Moulin Rouge! months before I even thought of ever becoming a film critic or box office analyst. I’m not sure I can fully explain why I love his work so much other than it’s for the same reason why some critics love Apichatpong Weerasethakul (and I’m sure it’s not cause of his impossible-to-remember-how-to-spell name) even though I’ve never understood the appeal myself.
You see, Luhrmann is indeed a visionary to the point of being able to take beloved literary classics like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” or “The Great Gatsby” and turning them into visual and musical spectacles unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The thought of him making a biopic of Elvis Presley didn’t exactly thrill me, since I never understood the appeal of Elvis (though I do understand his appeal more than Apich… no, I’m not going to try to spell his name again).
You may already know that Austin Butler – an actor I was unfamiliar with – plays Elvis, while Tom Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker (who isn’t actually a military man), the man who sees Elvis performing and quickly signs on as his manager, to take him to great heights. Elvis follows the relationship between the two men when Parker first glimpses Elvis performing and seeing how he drives young teen girls to screaming and sweating fits of glee.
There are aspects of Elvis that are standard to a musical biopic ala Walk the Line or the James Brown biopic Get on Up, but it’s also distinctively Baz, particularly with the way he imbues hip hop music into the known Elvis classics. In fact, Elvis is almost wall-to-wall music, and that’s partially what made it so enjoyable to me, beyond admiring Butler’s terrific performance, which was akin to Chadwick Boseman in the underrated Get on Up.
Lurhmann’s story is fairly comprehensive, including Elvis’ relationship and uneasy marriage to Priscilla, as played by Olivia DeJonge, who is just fantastic in this, but more than anything else, it’s about the relationship between Presley and Parker. Hanks’ Parker does take some getting use to, since his bizarre attempt at a Dutch accent is all over the place, and let’s face it, Parker was never going to be made more likeable even with the Hanks charm, since he really is the antagonist of this movie.
While it’s nice seeing the likes of BB King (as played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and King Richard and other rock ‘n’ roll luminaries of the time, I wish that we saw more of them or they had a more important role in Elvis’ story, since Elvis instead focuses mostly on the ups and downs of Parker trying to control Elvis’ entire life and career.
It would be deeply regretful to alk about Elvis without shining a spotlight on Baz’s long-time partner-in-art, his wife and co-producer Catherine Martin, who handles both the costumes and production design for Elvis. I mean, she has won four Oscars for similar duties for Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, so you already know this collaboration has created some of the most striking visual films of the past two decades.
That’s similarly the case with Elvis, from recreating Graceland and Las Vegas – the entire film was shot in Australia, incidentally, even if the majority of it takes place in the States – to creating simulations of Elvis’ iconic costumes and capes that he wore on television. One of my favorite moments of the film is a montage of Elvis on tour in the United States following his first Vegas residency, and you literally see Butler in a different outfit every few seconds, which is pretty impressive, and makes you think that the budget for this movie must have been enormous. (Some of that budget was clearly used on the hair and makeup to age and fatten up Hanks to make Parker look way uglier than Hank could pull off without makeup.)
Elvis is classic Baz Luhrmann, taking a subject matter that may not seem of interest to some viewers, but actually finds an entertaining and truly unique way into telling Presley’s story. This is quite a cinematic achievement whose positive values far outweigh any issues some might have with Luhrmann’s non-conformist approach with Elvis’ life and career.