Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” with its overwrought style beyond substance, is the cinematic equivalent of eating all of your leftover Halloween candy in one night and waking up sick the next morning. An enjoyable ride with sweet flavorings to boot, it’s too eager in its undertakings and leaves you staggered and slightly sick.
With a hubristic two-hour, 39-minute runtime that challenges even the most ardent supporters of the hyper-stylistic director, “Elvis” fails to shine beyond spectacle in its portrayal of the relationship between the iconic rock-and-roller and his infamously manipulative manager.
The film follows Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) through his life and career as told by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who narrates the story in the moments leading up to his death. “Elvis” attempts to demonstrate that it wasn’t his exploitation that killed the king of rock and roll, but rather the king himself.
Right away, this framing device of Parker’s narration falls apart. The audience immediately understands that he’s an unreliable narrator yet the narrative itself seems to fall in and out of his frame with Parker providing more color commentary than narration.
The little tension that is created by this device thrusts the audience through the first 20 minutes, but loses steam when we realize that there is no value to it that isn’t replicated elsewhere in the movie. Why did we need a narrator and frame when Parker was going to make his same arguments in the contained movie?
Though the frame has little to no tension, there certainly is plenty in the contrasting performances of Butler and Hanks. Butler’s star-making performance as Presley showed me what musician biopics (a genre that should’ve stayed dead after “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” killed it) could be.
However, every scene of Butler truly embodying the King is bookended by Hanks stumbling around the screen in exaggerated prosthetics, muttering in a nearly unidentifiable Dutch accent, the worst thing to happen to Holland since the ‘40s. Reading after the fact that Hanks was trying to approach the complicated figure with nuance felt like hearing the creator of “The Powerpuff Girls” call Mojo Jojo subtle — slice it however you like, that’s just flat-out not represented.
Luhrmann’s distinct visual style, though not a favorite of mine, compliments stories of wealth and excess such as this one and his 2013 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” With “Elvis,” Luhrmann plays his hits for better or worse — exaggerated edits, constantly shifting camera work, vivid color composition and a breakneck sense of pacing cram this movie with the constant presence of the director. The result is much like the city of Las Vegas that played such a role in the demise of the King — glamour on the surface masking an inescapable cage of image and density.
And when I say that the edits are exaggerated, I mean it. Anywhere another director would use a simple fade, Luhrmann freezes the frame, fades in an overlay, does a wipe and adds a blur. The overdone edits repeated over such a long runtime batter the audience, making them long for the days of “Moulin Rouge,” which featured a definite style not at the sacrifice of audience experience. This editing speeds the film along like a montage for the 90 minutes, then grinds it to a halt when Presley arrives in Vegas.
I cannot emphasize enough how awful the pacing was and how much worse it was made by the editing. Though a story is told, Luhrmann clearly puts no thought into his use of scene and summary — the most important moments feel seconds long, while we spend what feels like an eternity with Hanks’ meandering narration, glossing over huge aspects and moments of Presley’s career and relationship with Parker.
Some exaggerated choices made by Luhrmann pay off, particularly the anachronistic scoring. Though there’s a sense of whiplash hearing Presley refer to B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) under Doja Cat’s “Vegas,” it creates a modern feeling to the movie that integrates our cultural perspectives with those of Presley’s era. Bold moments like these justified “Elvis” much more than the stale and safe treadings of works like 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which itself felt like a computer-generated clone of 2005’s flaccid “Walk the Line.”
I would recommend this movie only to those with the most hardy patience. It’s worth seeing for Butler’s terrific performance, but beyond that, “Elvis” is little more than neon paint on a summary of itself. If you make the choice to brave the experience, come prepared — you’re in for a slog.
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Spenser Willden is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spenserwillden