I once read a piece about Baz Luhrmann that described him as “The Michael Bay of jazz hands” and I’m not going to even try to top that. Although Elvis doesn’t have the large-format, panoramic dance choreography of Moulin Rouge or The Great Gatsby, it’s definitely a Baz Luhrmann movie in all the best ways. Baz is one of those rare directors that has created, and continues to refine, his own visual cinematic language, and it’s on full display here.
It’s a smart choice (IMHO) to tell the story through the shaky lens of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ ethically-questionable manager. Tom Hanks delivers a suitably weird performance, bouncing between Dutch and American accents in a way that keeps him slippery enough to feel untrustworthy.
From the beginning, we’re pitched into a swirling fever dream, the boy Elvis going into religious rapture as he hears the gospel sounds from a rural revival ministry that he sneaks into in Tupelo, the manic energy already pouring out of him as a pre-teen. We pinball through his life at breakneck speed, and it’s a disorienting sensory overload that reflects what must have been a whiplash-inducing rise to fame.
We get many sweat-drenched close-ups of the snake-hipped showmanship that fuelled that rise, women passing out from the gyratory exuberance, men eyeing him suspiciously, wishing they had an ounce of his power on stage. Austin Butler is corporeally committed from the get-go, and delivers a rampantly physical performance from the first gig to the last.
The rollercoaster never stops, through early success, to marriage, to the Vegas years awash with narcotics and insecurity. The Colonel gradually switches from cheerleader to exploiter, the strains of “I’m caught in a trap” from Suspicious Minds wafting in the background as he signs Presley up to yet another exhaustingly demanding contract.
The music is as good as you’d expect, and even if history skips over it, Luhrmann makes sure to highlight that all of Elvis’ talent came from watching and listening to and hanging out with black musicians. We see the child Elvis at the knees of older bluesmen, as well as scenes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson, and BB King.
We know how this all ends, with ill health and recriminations and a legacy tainted. After Elvis dies, Tom Parker is nothing but a lonely, bitter gambling addict. Those halucinatory visions keep washing over us until the end, though, and we emerge from Luhrmann’s odyssey in a daze. It’s a long ride, and you need to strap in and hold on because it gets real bumpy amid all the grinding. PO
Elvis is playing at the Prytania Canal Place