There’s been a lot of hype about Baz Luhrmann’s recently released picture Elvis – but not nearly as much hype as there’s been criticism. It seems many reviewers would rather have seen a more strictly narrated biopic about ‘The King of Rock’n’Roll’ over the cut-and-paste montage Luhrmann has delivered. But then what else could we have expected from the director?
This is the man, after all, who managed to dwindle classic Shakespeare down to virtual decoupage; made a movie about the Moulin Rouge that was twice as exciting as the now somewhat weathered Parisian landmark; and turned literature’s Jay Gatsby into even more of a nihilist than he reads on paper. Of course Baz Luhrmann was going to turn one of music’s greatest icons into something more over-the-top, if not off-kilter.
Strict fans of Elvis’ music may not like the bastardised treatment of his songs at the hands of today’s flippant urban pop stars. Ardent critics might not appreciate the erratically shuffled timeline in telling Elvis’ story. And those with a low attention span – who may appreciate the film’s cut-and-pastiche aesthetic – still mightn’t agree with its lengthy 2-hour-39-minute running time.
But I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I really liked this movie.
Despite the story not going into detail about the real thoughts, drive and conversations that made up the real Elvis, and despite the fact that it focuses on superficies over substance, it is in fact a very watchable film, particularly for viewers who are used to visual overload (Gen X-ers to Gen Zs; others be warned of the kaleidoscopic assault).
In order to appreciate this movie off the bat, you’ve got to realise it isn’t supposed to be a biopic about one of the world’s most famous celebrities – who’s life would warrant more of a major television series rather than the time limitations of a film. In fact, despite its glistening title, ‘Elvis’ isn’t even mostly about Elvis, but very much about his manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Played by Tom Hanks in a fat suit (which only emphasises the protagonist’s carnivalesque caricature), the Colonel is a businessman of the most conniving kind. He does multimillion dollar deals behind his client’s back, demands that his wingmen has the artist on his feet and back on stage even when it looks like he’s gasping his last breath, and manipulates all those around Elvis in the most Machiavellian of manners, you wonder why he stuck to abusing just one artist in his notorious career.
Because the director’s attention is constantly shifting from the film’s main star to its main villain, Luhrmann has left out some key moments in Elvis’s life that really warranted attention. His politics are compressed down to a couple of sad looks when he sees Martin Luther King has been shot on the television. His poetic leanings left up to our imagination because we certainly don’t find out why he chose to sing particular songs. These fascinating details are instead dissolved into ambiguity under the weight of so much decoupage and distorted sound.
It would have been nice to know what Elvis really thought about being a parent, about the trappings of fame, racial debate, or even liberal politics, rather than just sliding in shots of his brooding expression every time a war is on, a president is shot, or a fellow celebrity is caught out on the TV news.
Anything that might resemble factual biography dissipates amid a flurry of carefully Bedazzled costumes and noisy, colourful slot machines. Still, I got well caught up in the razzle-dazzle whirlwind.
While the music remixing is on-point throughout – especially to the ears of retro-loving Gen-X-ers and genre-hopping millennials – some songs are bastardised and repeated so often, the songs start to sound redundant. Which is not a great thing to do ţo your subject’s legacy, especially when the majority of that legacy is, in the end, the music.
Sure, I enjoyed hearing the familiar strains of Can’t Help Falling In Love as wife-to-be Priscilla comes into the picture, but then hearing it for the fourth or fifth time, with yet another Ableton effect laid over the top, kind of kills the initial spirit of Elvis’s original treatment of the songs.
But Luhrmann knows he’s tampering with genius when he creates his over-the-top aural-visual adventures. If the subject matter wasn’t picture perfect to begin with, he probably wouldn’t have been attracted to touch it up in the first place.
Luhrmann has always added extra-colourful touches to subject matter he admires. So in this particualr case, Elvis’s hair is doused in lots more Brylcreem, his pink suits verge on being drag, the rhinestones are bigger, the name up in lights taller, and the ‘Thang-you-very-much’s delivered with more echo-y effect.
Such excess and hyper-saturation are trademark Luhrmann and they’re what we’ve come to expect in a movie made by the man, but when these start to take precedence over actual narrative and even the star of the show himself, it kind of leaves you wondering what the point of making the movie was, after all.
That’s probably what most people have a problem with when it comes to this film. In the end, Elvis, the movie, comes across as more of a spectacle of what Baz Luhrmann and company are able to do with their fancy photoshop equipment and Singer sewing machines rather than it be a serious study of one of music’s most complex characters (or for that matter, a study of said subject’s seedy manager).
There are moments in the film when Elvis does get to say more than one sentence, like in the calmer, tender scenes between him and Priscilla during his stint in the army, or in his well-warranted outburst to the Colonel about being bled dry towards the end of the movie. Finally, you get a chance to see if Luhrmann can pull off any traditional filmmaking, and the fact is, he can.
But then the beats-per-minute on the soundtrack start to speed up, the overlapping decoupage begins to take over again, and you’ve lost yourself once more in the smoke and mirrors of what is an already convoluted story.
Still, having been brought up on MTV and loving a good montage and mashup myself, I ultimately very much liked this film. Heck, it’s certainly better than a lot of the camp shenanigans Elvis starred in himself, but then I digress…
‘Elvis’ in cinemas today.