The Man Who Fell To Earth: Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’

What this film says not only about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but the controversial “Colonel” Tom Parker as well

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley; Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker (Images: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Baz Luhrmann’s new film is a story about a man who came from nothing, fully reinvented himself, and helped usher in a musical revolution that changed the world. He’s even the film’s narrator. But the movie isn’t named after him. Instead, it’s entitled “Elvis.”

So, though the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is placed centerstage in this bio pic, it’s a tale that’s related through the self-serving eyes of Presley’s notorious manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, an illegal immigrant who took on a new identity when he escaped from his native Holland, his honorary title given to him by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis in 1948. And it’s told in flashback to boot. Meaning that for all the flashy touches you’d expect from a Luhrmann pic (a quick online search reveals that the most commonly used word to describe it is “dazzling”), you’re always a step removed from the action, kept watching from a distance. For all its surface gloss, Elvis never quite penetrates the emotional core of its ostensible subject.

 

VIDEO: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis trailer 1

This is especially true of the film’s more frenetic first half. Luhrmann is in love with the swooping camera and the rapid fire edit (one shot of Elvis walking to his car had at least four separate edits), meaning that the balance too often tips in favor of style over substance. Take the scene where Parker (Tom Hanks) is bowled over by Elvis’ (Austin Butler) command of his audience while performing on the Louisiana Hayride radio show. The camera is constantly on the move, pivoting between Parker’s fleshy face, Elvis’ cupid bow lips, the deliriously screaming fans, the thrusting guitar, the grasping hands, that dangerously swiveling pelvis. It’s a dizzying sequence that does leave you breathless. But it also denies Butler the chance to demonstrate his own prowess; the sequence’s power comes not from Butler’s performance, but in how it’s edited. 

Similarly, the great attention to visual detail comes at the expense of really delving into the meat of the story. Much has been made of the efforts to get just the right “look” for each era, with everyone from the stars to extras only seen for a millisecond properly attired right down to their shirt buttons, and not a prop or a piece of furniture out of place. It’s an impressive display, but it also turns the film into a series of well-designed set pieces: This is Elvis at Sun Studio. This is Elvis performing in Memphis. This is Elvis with his newborn daughter Lisa Marie. This is Elvis at the Comeback Special. This is Elvis on stage in Vegas. 

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Poster 1 (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

What about the story behind all that imagery? Luhrmann has compared the movie to a “superhero film,” but all the glitz and glamor can’t disguise the fact that Elvis is ultimately a tragedy. Parker, the very definition of an unreliable narrator, insists he’s not the villain, but the movie suggests otherwise. By calling Elvis the world’s greatest carnival attraction, Parker makes it clear he never viewed him as a person, but as just another product to be exploited, and as much of a “mark” as the audiences that Parker so relished taking advantage of.

Striving to make Elvis more of a hero, Luhrmann portrays him as having more agency than he actually did in his life, showing him provoking a riot during a show in response to Parker’s commands that he tone down his act and secretly meeting with other promotors to plan an overseas tour. But Parker retains the upper hand anyway; following the riot, he packs Elvis off into the army, and he brazenly lies about his own intentions of setting up a foreign tour. Even a less passive Elvis has no chance of coming out on top.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Poster 2 (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Austin Butler has been rightly hailed for his charismatic performance; Tom Hanks fares less well, saddled with a ludicrous accent and a frankly unbelievable bumbling manner. But the depiction of Elvis is one-dimensional, the film never conveying how complex a character he actually was. A celebratory montage of the 1960s movie years, for example, makes them look like colorful, kitschy fun. But it neglects the other side of the story, namely the toll they took on Elvis. Year after year of making mediocre films with lousy songs sapped his creative spirit, and exacerbated his drug use, which always escalated whenever he was bored.

The drug issue itself is sidelined, presented as only becoming an issue once Elvis was stuck on a relentless touring treadmill in the 1970s. In fact, his drug use dated back to at least his army days (and possibly earlier), when the GIs popped speed to stay awake on guard duty, and continuing in the early 1960s when Elvis and entourage used speed to fuel their late night partying. What a missed opportunity to probe the nature of addiction; consider that as debilitating as Elvis’ drug use was, it was the one area of his life that his manager couldn’t control. Elvis’ love life is similarly streamlined, his relationship with his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge, doing what she can with an under-developed role) shown as being his one great love, conveniently overlooking the fact that Elvis was never faithful to her, either during their courtship or their marriage. There’s little in the way of insight; Elvis is a film that sticks resolutely to the surface.

 

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Poster 3 (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The most curious aspect of the film is how archive footage of the real Elvis (mostly in live performance) is increasingly mixed in as the story progresses into the ’70s. In a way, it’s an inverse of the process used in making the 1981 docu-drama This Is Elvis, which relied primarily on archive footage, with reenactments of events where archive footage didn’t exist; Elvis even takes one such reenactment (a news reporter talking about Elvis’ health outside a hospital) directly from This Is Elvis. More bizarrely, the last shot in Elvis appears to be the same final shot seen This Is Elvis, the caped King triumphantly holding his arms aloft during an April 9, 1972 performance in Hampton Roads, Virginia. 

It’s strange that Luhrmann wouldn’t want his own film to have a different, unique, final image. It’s equally puzzling that after his painstaking recreations of Elvis performances from the ’50s and ’60s, he opts to rely more heavily on archive footage for the 1970s. Perhaps it’s the realization that no performer could evoke the heartbreaking pathos you feel in watching Elvis performing “Unchained Melody” less than two months before his death, a clip included in Elvis (though it starts out with Butler, it morphs into the real Elvis at the end). He’s puffy, sweat drips from his face, he rambles and sounds tired during the spoken introduction; there’s an undeniable sadness in seeing what the once vibrant rock god has been reduced to. But when he sings, his voice still soars, he pushes to hit those high notes, and he makes it to the end of the song. Coming after two-plus hours of watching a more dreamy-eyed version of Elvis, the inclusion of the clip is a jolting return to reality. It’s a reminder that behind the icon, there was a man, one with all too human flaws; an ordinary man placed into extraordinary circumstances. “Caught in a trap,” indeed.

Elvis was larger than life. Elvis is big on the “large,” not so much on the “life.” Baz Luhrmann has created a glittering house of fun, with little in the way of depth, making Elvis a film that’s entertaining, but not fully satisfying. Maybe, in spite of all that’s been written and discussed and analyzed about him, it’s just not possible to crack the enigma of Elvis Presley. But that won’t stop people from trying. 

 

VIDEO: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Trailer 2

 

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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