Elvis: a frenetic jukebox musical that’s heavy on style and light on substance

Baz Luhrmann’s sixth film never quite gets to the heart of its eponymous character, despite a swaggering yet sensitive performance by Austin Butler.

Austin Butler as Elvis in Elvis (2022)

Baz Luhrmann is a scholar of razzle-dazzle. The Australian director’s tendency towards excess, noise, jazz hands and sequins is certainly attention-grabbing, and he can’t resist an anachronistic music choice that might provoke a double-take. In Elvis, his exuberant biopic of the American singer and actor, a scene that takes place on the historic Beale Street in Memphis, home of the blues in the 1950s, is goofily soundtracked by the rapper Doja Cat. As with his previous films Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann takes pleasure in what some might deem bad taste.

The film embraces tacky opulence and begins in Las Vegas in the late 1970s, at the tail end of Elvis Presley’s residency at the International Hotel. Luhrmann has Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) narrate the story. A man who believed in manipulating audiences into “feeling things they’re not sure they should be enjoying”, he was an unabashed opportunist who won his client a major record deal with RCA, turned him into the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and took 50% of the profits.

It’s through this unreliable narrator’s eyes that we revisit Presley’s greatest hits, sometimes through hyperactively edited split-screen panels – the effect is of memories remembered imperfectly, in fragments. Parker meets Austin Butler’s Presley as an adolescent country star who flirts with rhythm and blues. “He’s white?!” Parker exclaims, dollar signs practically appearing in his eyeballs. The pair make a business deal while sitting on a Ferris wheel; Presley effectively signs up for the circus. Those dollar signs appear again, and multiply, when he witnesses Presley’s signature hip-thrusting ‘wiggle’ and the way it sends teenage girls wild. Dressed in a billowing pink suit, Butler is incandescent with sweat, effort and screen-melting animal sexuality—that is, when Luhrmann deigns conventional narrative for long enough to let the audience appreciate him.

The fans need to believe you’re available, insists Parker, and so teenage fans – an untapped market until the 1950s – are pandered to even further. The heartthrob’s face is plastered on posters, t-shirts and badges. As Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s B.B. King puts it when Presley fears running afoul of the law for his supposedly obscene performances: “Too many people are making too much money off of you to put you in jail.”

Telling the story of Presley from the perspective of the man who ‘made’ him allows Luhrmann to frame his subject as both commercial product and cultural phenomenon. Presley’s fame coincided with, and was bolstered by, a rapidly changing America whose mainstream had not yet embraced the Civil Rights movement. According to record producer Sam Phillips, Black music didn’t sell, but Presley did.

The formative influence of both Black spirituality and sexuality on Presley’s music is given due credit. We see the young Presley (Chaydon Jay) watching a group of Black musicians dancing lustily, through a peephole; Luhrmann frantically edits this scene with another of the young Presley entering a tent during a gospel performance. The camera weaves through the crowd, vibrating with excitement. Presley’s relationship to Black music is presented as earnest, but also passive; it’s framed as a spiritual connection, rather than something he makes an informed intellectual or political choice about.

It’s not a problem until the film’s middle section, which focuses on his 1968 TV comeback special. Reluctant to accede to Parker’s plan for a Christmas-themed cash-in, Presley ignores his manager’s instructions to wear a cosy cardigan, donning a black leather jumpsuit instead. The tragedy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination supposedly sparks his sense of rebellion, but on the specifics of race relations, the film has little to say.

There are other elisions too. Presley’s relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is given scant screen time, and his brief movie career is paid hasty attention. Luhrmann refuses to dwell on the star’s low ebbs, defaulting to montages overlaid with newspaper clippings whenever he feels the story is getting too tedious. In fact, there are so many, they end up slowing things down.

There is also the issue of Hanks, whose cartoon ‘European’ accent (the real Parker was Dutch), prosthetic nose and fat-suit transform tragedy into burlesque. At least there is Butler, whose combination of sensitivity and swagger helps conjure the spirit of Presley, even if he never totally merges with the character. Luhrmann shrewdly acknowledges this, restaging a wrenching performance of “Unchained Melody” from 1977, two months before Presley’s death and dissolving the scene into footage of the real performance. For all the rhinestones and razzle-dazzle, Luhrmann holds back on giving us the man underneath.

► Elvis is in UK cinemas now.