You can often judge the quality of a biopic by how effective its closing montage of real life footage is. First of all, using this implies the whole piece is rather formulaic; secondly, if this footage really hits home, it can highlight quite how much the movie has not worked. The moments of something real at the end of Luhrmann’s Elvis (referring to it as anything else feels disingenuous) only highlight the falsity of the wider film. This work truly does feel like a 159 minute trailer, shoving through stuff at such speed, and only concerned with bombast and invasive editing. It is a film of pure glitz and style, where a strong performance by Austin Butler is never allowed to really break through the overdose of aesthetic.
This is, in actuality, a film about Colonel Tom Parker. It is aesthetically aligned to this, also. It is all empty glamour and forced momentum. Scenes rush into each other, slipping through history with no interest in one moment impacting the next. Quite simply, the film refuses to stop. This sense of eternal ascent mirrors the treatment of Presley by Colonel Tom Parker (here overacted by Tom Hanks. It’s a pretty terrible performance). In doing so, though, the film starts to commit the same crimes it is ostensibly trying to criticise. The Colonel took a human and made him into merchandise, only ever surface level glitz and never anything of substance. Much like how Luhrmann’s last film captured the aesthetic of Gatsby, but never its soul, this falls short again. The argument that there is a talented human caught in a trap is lost in the film’s commitment to surface. We see the Colonel Tom Parker myth from his point of view. Once again, we have Elvis only as an icon, even as it tries to show this very same treatment as an unfairness.
Because, when it comes to it, Luhrmann is more snowman than showman (if you don’t know what this means, get ready to have this explained every five minutes in the film). He nails a sense of empty spectacle but can only actually offer that. There is the need to tell the story underneath but Luhrmann and co. have only mastered the outside. This is only highlighted by attempts to tie the story into something meaningful. Occasionally, our chronology is disrupted by a massive historical event happening, which all make the central drama feel less important. I know very little about Elvis Presley, I now think I know less. From this film, I become aware that he just appropriated a lot of music, made a lot of money of it, and had a tragic downfall while landmark events happened around him.
There just isn’t a compelling narrative thrust to his life, or this film doesn’t give an argument for their being one. When the film’s lens on segregated America is limited to pointing out that this time was tough for Elvis, too, that it almost got him in trouble, you have a problem. It’s not because he took a stand, because he spoke truth to power and used the platform that he made from taking Black music from Black musicians (a repeated refrain is him saying he is going to record a song just after we see a Black musician play it). He is only actually trouble because he dances sexy and this is seen to cause unrest. I know what you’re thinking, ‘but, it’s true. It happened.’ But it can be true and still not be the story worth telling. I was reminded of how brilliant Summer of Soul is, and a segment in that film where they argued against the importance of the Moon Landing in the light of racial injustice. If the Moon Landing is overshadowed by systemic racism, you can bet narrativising an Elvis gig is.
It is those archive moments at the end that make this all so much clearer. The edited moments remind the viewer, only so slightly, of an Asif Kapadia documentary (Amy, specifically) and make you wish that this was that. There is room to explore the Elvis story, what it all means in the end. There is little gained from just playing it out on fast-forward for two and a half hours. There are striking moments of musicality and performance, but the frenetic style cuts against all of these. Elvis, the film, just wants every time period to exist at once, constantly having everything happening. It is beyond exhausting and it flattens the whole experience. Though, it is never not engaging. The sheer bombast of the whole thing will keep you glued to the screen, even when you know it sucks.