Can we just admit that if Baz Luhrmann were Elvis, he’d be the Vegas Elvis? Not the lean and feral Early Elvis, or the bored Movie Elvis or the sluggish and bloated Late Elvis. He’d be that early-Vegas Elvis, spangled and prone to excess but also capable of being damned exciting. “If I Can Dream,” “Burning Love” and the epochal “Suspicious Minds” — he’d be that Elvis.
The problem with Luhrmann, though, is one that at times rubs off on Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” which premiered on Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival: The Australian director also has a lot of Colonel Tom Parker in him. Parker was a showman, to be sure, a former carny who managed Elvis and steered him on a path where profit always took precedence over artistry. And as Col. Parker (who was appropriately, neither a colonel nor born with the name Parker) says many times during “Elvis,” “All showmen are snowmen.”
The Colonel was talking about himself, and to a lesser degree Elvis, but Luhrmann knows the snowshoe fits and he wears it proudly. The film is part spirited homage to a titanic force in American music, delivered with the brio and extravagance of Lurhmann riffs like “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet”; part sad cautionary tale of a quick rise and a long, slow decline; and part showcase for Austin Butler, who takes an impossible role and does a terrific job even though he, like everyone else on the planet, doesn’t really look like Elvis. But at other times the film is also a late-Elvis-sized snow job that gleefully distorts an icon’s life and career.
Of course it does so knowingly and with a wink or two; Luhrmann is not the kind of guy whose films should be scrutinized for historical accuracy. His freewheeling approach is often for the better: At the beginning of “Moulin Rouge!” there’s a thrilling moment when the delirious masses inside the famed Parisian nightspot in 1900 suddenly break into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” an invigorating statement that Paris at the dawn of the 20th century can be anyplace, anytime.
“Elvis” comes close to that kind of moment a couple of times, most notably when young Elvis watches an old bluesman stomp through a swampy, doomy version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and conflates it with a gospel choir’s supercharged run through “I’ll Fly Away,” in the process creating something like the version of “That’s All Right” that became his first single for Sun Records.
It’s a delirious and invigorating moment, and yet the math is off: Elvis certainly drew from blues and gospel, but the key was that he mixed them with country music, which is almost entirely absent from “Elvis” except as a symbol of the staid old order that Elvis was overturning. So Lurmann’s equation – blues + gospel = Elvis, and by extension rock ‘n’ roll – is too wrong to give the scene the power it might otherwise have.
Granted, “Elvis” isn’t a movie that purports to tell of the birth of rock. For that matter, it doesn’t even begin as a movie about Elvis. The first person we see and the first voice we hear belongs to Tom Hanks’ Col. Parker, who’s just suffered a heart attack and announces that he’s going to tell us the real story of the boy he turned into a star. “Without me,” he says, “there would be no Elvis Presley.”
If this were really Col. Parker telling the story, of course, it’d be far more sanitized and a lot less entertaining, and it certainly wouldn’t immediately launch into a blazing split-screen montage that layers one grandiose moment on top of another. Shot by Mandy Walker with a gloss worthy of The King and designed to the last sequin by Catherine Martin (give her the assignment to create Graceland and stand back!), this is a super-sized, two-hour-and-39-minute extravaganza even if it starts in county fairs and blues shacks in the rural South.
In the Colonel’s telling, Elvis sounded Black but was white, which Parker just knew was the right blend in the sedate-but-waiting-to-explode mid 1950s. He also had the dance moves to shock the white girls who hadn’t seen gyrations like that because they didn’t hang out in juke joints or gospel tents.
“He was a taste of forbidden fruit,” Parker says as he watches one girl collapse into screams. “She could have eaten him whole … It was the greatest carnival attraction I’d ever seen. He was my destiny.”
The canny Colonel is the hero of his telling, but everybody watching “Elvis” will tag him for a huckster from the start. It probably helps that Hanks goes for the strange accent really thick, laying a bit too much groundwork for the moment when we later discover the Colonel’s real provenance.
Basically, the movie’s first stretch is a streamlined rise-of-Elvis sprint that shows just how faithfully Butler can re-create the Elvis moves we’ve seen, and how eagerly Lurhmann can drop in purposeful anachronisms like the rap that suddenly lands in Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog.”
In that streamlining there’s a lot of oversimplification, reducing three chaotic years into Elvis hits it big/Elvis offends people with his gyrations and is in danger of being arrested/Colonel Parker sends Elvis into the Army to repair his image. There’s enough energy and flash, though, to overcome most nit-picking, and Butler throws himself into a performance that’s wildly physical but never cartoonish or disrespectful. (The movie respects Presley, who deserves it, but not Parker, who doesn’t.)
Butler was largely unknown when he was cast over reported contenders like Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Harry Styles, all of whom probably would have brought too much of their own baggage to the role. And it’s not really his fault that he doesn’t look like Elvis, that his singing voice can’t really get close to Elvis and that the makeup, hair styling and wardrobe used to get him in the ballpark mostly makes him look like an Elvis impersonator. (There have been way too many of those over the years for us not to think about that.)
Luhrmann’s cut-and-paste job of covering Elvis’ career falls somewhere between “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which pretended it was telling the real Freddie Mercury story but did nothing of the sort, and “Rocketman,” which told you up front that it was going to turn Elton John’s story into a fantasia. You get the feeling that Luhrmann might have liked to go further in the fantasia direction, but maybe Elvis was too big, too familiar and too sacred for him to go whole hog – so instead he settles for big, charged musical sequences and a host of lies of varying sizes.
It’s most egregious, perhaps, in the lengthy sequence that covers the 1968 “comeback” special, when Elvis shrugged off the Colonel’s desire to do a sedate Christmas show and turned in a blistering rock performance that revived his career after more than two dozen terrible movies (and oh, four or five good ones). Not content to tell that story straight, “Elvis” whips up a fictional Hollywood-sign meeting between Elvis and the show’s producer and musical director, drops Bobby Kennedy’s assassination into the middle of the taping (it didn’t happen then) and conjures up a ridiculous moment in which an entire Christmas set is built just to fool Col. Parker.
It’s a shame that Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner had to go to those extremes when the reenacted ’68 performances manage to get at some of the power of that show, and when they could have shown Elvis standing up to the Colonel, which he did, a lot more credibly.
The TV special leads to Vegas, and Vegas leads to the long decline, which is treated with some restraint and, again, a lot of narrative streamlining. (But it doesn’t feel like streamlining: The movie runs two hours and 39 minutes, lots of that seemingly occupied by the decline.) In this stretch in particular, it’s hard for Butler to not look as if he’s a guy in an Elvis costume; hell, by about 1975, Elvis looked like a guy in an Elvis costume.
And then, curiously, there he is in one of his final concerts, sweaty and puffy but sitting at the piano and singing a magnificent and heart-rending version of “Unchained Melody.” For a minute, you might watch and think that Butler suddenly looks a lot like late-period Elvis, until you realize that Luhrmann has dropped the artifice and is showing you the real thing. It’s triumphant without the distraction of being an impersonation; it’s pure Elvis at a sad but glorious moment.
(Strangely enough, the last movie about Elvis to play in Cannes was Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The King,” which screened under its original title, “Promised Land” – and that film, a provocative look at Elvis and America, also climaxes with this same performance of “Unchained Melody,” a rare artistic benchmark in those final days.)
The glimpse of the real Elvis in “Elvis” is eventually followed by some exhilarating end-credits music, a mashup of remixes, covers and raps over Elvis tracks that captures a lot of what the movie aspires to, and achieves at times.
As for the moments that don’t work – well, back in “Jailhouse Rock” in 1957, there’s a signature (and from this remove, cringeworthy) scene where Elvis’ character forcibly kisses a music promoter played by Judy Tyler. “How dare you think such cheap tactics would work with me,” she snaps. “That ain’t tactics, honey,” Elvis says. “It’s just the beast in me.”
So maybe the thing to do is to go along with the extravagant pleasures of “Elvis,” and ignore the silliness. After all, it’s just the beast – or, more accurately, the snowman – in Baz.