Baz Luhrman’s 'Elvis' is a Hanka Hunka Burning Drudge

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Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Director Baz Luhrman’s “Elvis” has plenty of suspicious minds, but precious little mystery as his trademark excess fails to breathe new life into the tired legacy of the King. No amount of montages, quick cuts, and odd music choices can obscure the fact that we don’t see anything here that even the casual Elvis fan doesn’t already know.

The film tells the story of the rise and fall of Elvis (Austin Butler) through the eyes of his personal Svengali, manager, and exploiter-in-chief Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Hanks plays Parker as a grotesque force of evil who is so slimy and menacing he’s practically a Bond villain. His inscrutable accent comes and goes. He’s cagey about his background. He shouts his unscrupulous ways from the mountaintops, and brags liberally about the “snow jobs” he pulls on everyone in sight.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Butler is handed the tricky job of trying to channel The King while trying to not come off as a particularly high class Elvis Impersonator, and he mostly pulls it off. The film does a good job of explaining what Parker saw early on in Elvis. Butler’s Elvis is a pulsing, swiveling force of nature who represents a connection to music and feelings that his more closed off white audiences weren’t in touch with … yet I came away from the film with no better idea of why Elvis would have gotten mixed up with this slimy troll in the first place.

The script doesn’t have much more to say than that about who Elvis was beyond being a nice mama’s boy, who acquiesced to Parker’s manipulations after his mother’s death. There are sequences where Butler must look pained by the news of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but Luhrman is content to merely mention the events and lets everyone else fill in the blanks.

The showy Luhrman (he directed “Moulin Rouge” previously, among others) amps up his usual visual touches as Parker recounts his story in flashback. After a fall and an apparent heart episode, Parker recounts his tale as he rises from one time carnival barker to music promoter who crosses paths with Elvis at a radio station Jamboree. Luhrman’s usual visual tricks largely fail him here though, and the wrong notes start right from beginning. He has a blithering Hanks-as-Parker narrating the story while he wanders through the International hotel in a hospital gown, pulling an IV and sitting down at slot machines. Cue up the roulette wheel dissolving into the turn of a record player and we’re on our way.

I’m usually down for Luhrman’s penchant for the juxtaposition of putting contemporary music into retro scenes, but the technique doesn’t work here. And what’s worse is that he fails to properly use Elvis’ songs to their full effect either. Songs from Comeback Special and the Jumpsuit Fat Elvis period get the best renditions, but they don’t live and breathe like the music in the director’s movies usually do. They’re more like contractually obligated callbacks to the fans. The same goes for the Pink Cadillac, Graceland, Kung Fu, and the incident where Elvis shot a gun at his TV. I half expected a montage of peanut butter and banana sandwiches to top it all off.

The Col. and the King: Tom Hanks and Austin Butler in ‘Elvis’
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Despite the film stretching on for over two and a half hours, the span of Elvis 42 years seems like too much to tackle with too little payoff. By tackling his entire life, the film doesn’t have any time to really get into what made him tick.

And I’m sorry, but yet another tent revival “call to Jesus” moment from Elvis childhood in Memphis just ain’t going to cut it. Baz Luhrman speeds through the decades, but I almost wish he’d picked a particular period and then narrowed his scope a bit so he could find something new to say. I didn’t particularly have any desire to visit Graceland before this film, and I don’t have any desire to now.

“Elvis” opens in theaters everywhere on June 25th. Featuring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Screenplay by Baz Luhrman, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner. Directed by Baz Luhrman. Rated “PG-13” contributor Spike Walters


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