Baz Luhrmann | 2hr 39min
For all his bombastic flash and glorious excess, Baz Luhrmann’s narrative fascination has always lain in historic tragedies, riding waves of frantic joy before extinguishing them with romantic poignancy. After taking on William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and concocting a lavish tribute to love stories in Moulin Rouge, Elvis Presley’s bright but truncated career only seems like a natural fit for as passionate a cinematic maximalist as the Australian auteur. His pacing through decades of his subject’s life is relentless, as much a rebellion against the restraints imposed by traditional artistic conventions as Presley’s own musical defiance, glancing off life events with the same zealous frenzy that defines his restless but magnetic stage presence. This kineticism infects every inch of the singer’s body, and even in one early scene that follows his discovery of blues music while overhearing Black musicians sing and dance, he undergoes a physical, full-body experience not unlike a possession, shaking uncontrollably. “He’s with the spirit,” one man declares to Elvis’ friend, and from this point on it seems that the spirit never leaves him.
Intercut with this birth into the world of music, Luhrmann skilfully weaves in Presley’s birth as a celebrity, whereby future manager Colonel Tom Parker first recognises his potential for profit at a Louisiana Hayride performance. This sort of parallel editing across decades of Presley’s life is a stroke of brilliance from Luhrmann, and this is not the last time we see him pull it off in Elvis, later stepping it up in a performance of “That’s Alright” which effectively unifies his later career, an early studio recording, and his musical roots in African American blues, colliding them through dexterous cuts and split screens until they all merge into one. Between scenes, Luhrmann’s transitions glide through playful wipes, camera spins, and match cuts, at one point turning the clockwise motion of a Ferris wheel into a spinning vinyl record, which then becomes a circular neon street sign. In effect, he enthusiastically plays his editing like a rock ‘n’ roll song, harmonising separate narrative strands and effortlessly sliding from one set piece to the next with all the vigour of a rowdy Elvis Presley concert.
This level of stamina is one that is quite unique to Luhrmann as a filmmaker, though Austin Butler proves himself to be an excellent fit in the pure energy he projects both on and offstage. What starts as an extraordinary impersonation with that deep, resonant voice, wiggling dance moves, and slow, suave mannerisms gradually evolves into a more rounded portrait of an exasperated musician, frustrated with the constraints that keep clipping his wings. As woefully miscast as Tom Hanks is as Parker with his poor Dutch accent grating ears in each voiceover, Luhrmann at least formally sets his character up in opposition to Presley’s unsatiable desire to keep expanding his horizons. Where Parker tries remodelling him in the image of a clean-cut, all-American boy, the music icon in turn asserts an individualistic mindset that refuses to sink to middlebrow culture.
Still, for all his rebellious acts, Presley can’t quite bridge the gap from entertainment into civil rights activism. Luhrmann’s nimble editing once again comes into play as he cuts between a live musical performance and a political speech taking place elsewhere, separating Presley’s sphere of influence from the one which Parker holds him back from. In the battle for post-war America’s identity, these two characters come to represent either ends of a generational revolt – on one side, young, cultural innovators pushing for progress, and on the other, older conservatives looking to maintain the status quo, casting a heavy shadow over their idealistic children.
Even without looking at his screenplay, it is not hard to guess which side Luhrmann is behind. Along with his vivacious pacing is an active camera that eagerly flies through cities in long takes, and which punctuates Presley’s hip shakes with short, sharp zooms, as if overtaken by the same hysteria which sends the women in his audiences wild. Though at times it might seem that Luhrmann is trying to move a few steps ahead of himself with outrageous exaggerations, it remains remarkable how consistently in control he is over such vibrant chaos, refusing to submit to the same variation of any cinematic device more than once. Flashbacks to Presley’s childhood become newspaper comics that depict him as his favourite superhero, Captain Marvel Jr., and later when he tries breaking into the film industry, his own life becomes a 1960s Hollywood extravaganza. This constant reinvention of Presley’s image is vital to Elvis’ understanding of him as a dreamer, letting his creative ambitions flourish on film where he could not manifest them in real life.
Further challenging the form of this historical biopic is Luhrmann’s integration of modern pop and hip-hop songs around Presley’s rock ‘n’ roll music, revealing the star’s extensive influence upon contemporary artists from Doja Cat to Kanye West. Curating such an anachronistic soundtrack is not unusual for Luhrmann who played with similar creative choices in Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, but it especially instils Presley’s cultural persona here with a universality that looks to both the future and the past. In piecing together artefacts of American history littered throughout the past century, Luhrmann effectively melds his music, camerawork, and imaginative editing together into a vibrant collage of immense artistic and political passion.
Such intense excitement cannot live forever though, as Presley’s downfall into substance abuse and depression becomes just as much a tragic piece of his legend as his monumental musical influence. The final years of his life is also where Butler properly solidifies the complexity in his performance, running off on drunken tirades against his manager while sweating beneath bright concert lights, and offstage becoming a quiet, lifeless shell, dressing in glitzy imitations of the man he once was. In making selfish deals behind his client’s back and prioritising money over all else, Parker stands as an unsympathetic depiction of the pressures that brought this icon crashing down.
There is almost something cyclical to the nature of such cultural figures as this, and Luhrmann does not let the parallels to A Star is Born go amiss, especially given Presley’s near-casting in the 70s adaptation opposite Barbra Streisand. Reality might dictate that his rise and fall was not so straightforward as what Elvis depicts, but this film is not some fact-driven biography of one man’s life as played out in history books. In understanding this man through a retrospective lens of ardent appreciation, Luhrmann arrives at something uniquely sincere – a fervent, cinematic celebration adopting the form of Presley’s own creative expression, defying standard conventions to reach a wilder, more rebellious understanding of his ideals and impact.
Elvis is currently playing in cinemas.