Austin Butler as Elvis Baz Luhrmann

In Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, more is more but it’s also never enough

“As Presley, Austin Butler captures the intensity and charisma of a performer you can’t take your eyes off of, and becomes something of a blank slate: his success and desires are continually overshadowed by the mechanizations of greed and industry.”

Reaching levels of excessive parody that surpass caricature and reach a transcendent, trembling ecstasy, Baz Luhrmann believes more is more in his latest film, Elvis. The story is told from the point of view of Elvis Presley’s disgraced manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a cartoonishly evil carnival man incarnated by Tom Hanks. On his deathbed, above the lights and tables of Las Vegas, Parker remembers the man, the King, the legend through his eyes. And, if you want to believe him, Tom Parker was the one true creator of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

If you’ve never seen a Baz Luhrmann film, it’s difficult to put into words the frenzy of his style. Ever anachronistic, he captures the age’s madness by introducing contemporary music and pacing. In terms of music and image, Luhrmann leans heavily into a whip-fast editing style that is more associative than chronological. In just one short sequence, the audience witnesses Elvis’s breakthrough hayride show, his discovery of blues and his introduction to gospel music. To say these events happen in quick succession is not entirely accurate, in so much that they happen all at once. A flash of inspiration and the synthesis of experience lead to being the right person at the right time to break through into the culture. 

Presley was long credited (or accused) of helping bring Black American music to the mainstream. A pretty white boy made a much more appealing package for record companies and radio stations. The movie doesn’t do much to conceal these influences or Presley’s participation in Black neighbourhoods in Memphis, where he was born and raised. Luhrmann’s style, which never errs on subtlety, doesn’t de-emphasize the giant schism between a white boy like Elvis and his musical heroes, relegated to segregated sections and backrooms. While there’s likely some overemphasis on how the Black community embraced Presley as a means of overshadowing his critics, the movie questions the loaded politics of propping up mythmaking legends within American culture. 

The tension of what makes a legend sustains the movie and carries it into its most compelling sections. As Presley, Austin Butler does a bang-up job, capturing the intensity and charisma of a performer you can’t take your eyes off of. He also becomes something of a blank slate: his success and desires are continually overshadowed by the mechanizations of greed and industry. As far as unreliable narrators go, Tom Parker fails to convincingly state the case that he built Elvis into a star. Though a grotesque embodiment of greed and trickery, he showcases how talent, inspiration and creative energy are bled dry for capital and how humanity itself is disregarded in favour of a quick buck. 

Luhrmann is far less interested in capturing things as they were, as much as he’s enamoured with the landscape of kitschy Americana and bold, sensationalist emotions. Addressing the historical accuracy of all that goes down in this movie would be an act of futility. The film shines when it comes to the world’s surface levels: the merch, the costumes, the production design. In many ways, in Luhrmann’s infatuation with Fin de siècle degeneracy, 1920s decadence or the mid-century plastic boom, we see a deeply held fascination with pushing the human experience to its sensualist absolutes. His characters play hard and die young, consumed by the excesses they once aspired to and worshipped. 

Baz Luhrmann Elvis
Austin Butler as Elvis circa 1968

In Luhrmann’s hands, Elvis Presley becomes a tragic figure, a fire that burned too bright, used and abused by an industry with little regard for music or passion. Even in the elevation of Elvis over his Black peers, we sense a flagrant disregard for talent or skill: what mattered was that Elvis was white and they were not. His talent, sex appeal and charisma were secondary to his profitability. And, if Presley has endured as a cultural icon, it’s not because of choices made by his management who pushed him to be someone he wasn’t, to commodify his image within an inch of its life. 

Not all audiences will connect with Luhrmann’s balls-to-the-wall style. It’s dizzying but also intuitive and erotic, using associative sounds and images to create a heightened and almost vulnerable emotional and physiological state. Suppose you’re able to let yourself be carried away. In that case, you’ll be treated not only to an ecstatic experience but also an almost brutally honest examination of a culture built on overindulgence and abundance. Love, family and care are disregarded in favour of the branded image, artistry abandoned for gambling chips. More is more, but it’s also never enough. ■

Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann

Elvis opens in Montreal theatres on June 24.

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