Is it redundant to call a Baz Luhrmann film garish and over-the-top? Probably. Few directors have build sound a strong reputation around stylish aesthetics and visual insanity as much as the director of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Australia. Unlike most directors with a maximalist style, few feel so under-deserved or shallow. He makes bold creative choices just to make bold creative choices. It should say something this most “normal” film is the 2013 Great Gatsby adaptation.
Thus when his much anticipated Elvis biopic started receiving early reviews, I wasn’t surprised that critics hated it. It was dismissed as insane, nightmarish and overall terrible. Having only just seen it, I must say that it was everything I expect it to be — a garish and Kichy fever dream.
The music biopic is a deeply overplayed and cliche genre in modern pop-cinema. Ever since the likes of Walk the Line, modern Hollywood has made ALOT of money with films like Bohemian Rhopsody, Straight Outta Compton and Rocketman. Patrick H. Willems has a good video essay on the genre, and she deconstructs it better than I can. Needless to say, the genre is overplayed and over reliant on the same themes and tropes — these films are almost always repetitive movies about drug addiction, sex and fame.
Elvis can’t be accused of being cliche, necessarily — even though most of the plot points are recycled. It’s a movie very much existing in the paradigm of the cliches set before it; a Goodfellasesque story about the downfall of a great artist to his own demons. Luhrmann’s contribution to the genre just seems to be to add a level of bat-crap insanity.
The adaptation is one of the most maximalist films of 2022 — a hyperkinetic over-the-top film with some of the most jittery cuts, fastest pacing and most insane scene transitions of any film you’ll see this year. There are hardly any scenes that last more than a few minutes and often entire decades are summarized in insane montages the blast past major events.
Because the personality of Elvis comes with controversy, the movie has to thread the needle of his controversies carefully. Elvis Presley is often accused of stealing his music from Black artists and the movie tries to lampshade this by finding a way to simultaneously explore how his music was influenced from the Black blues and gospel artists he grew up with and how his style was rejected by segregation-era Tennessee for being “animalistic and black”.
It’s clear where his influences are coming from but the movie also wants to make it clear that his transgression was progressive and necessary. The movie intercuts one of its best scenes with scenes of a right-wing southern politician at a segregation rally, with confederate flags in the background, as if his music was a total rebellion against the horrific racist social norms of the south.
This movie is NOT subtle…
Elvis also laments that it’s main character just isn’t doing enough to help black people. As we explore the life of history’s most famous rock and roller, we see the tumultuous events of the 1960s happening in the background like the Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassination happening while Elvis enjoys and profits from the style he learned from black artists.
It’s all obvious and tragic irony. The world Elvis grew up in, poor black neighborhoods in Memphis, is left to burn while he can’t do anything to help them, or thinks there’s nothing he can do. Much of this is just set-dressing though for its bonkers story, mere acknowledgments of disparate and nuanced themes that don’t play into the film’s conclusion and story.
Strangely, this Elvis movie isn’t actually primarily focused on Elvis. The movie ends up being more about his manager Colonel Tom Parker at times than Presley himself. The film’s largest star on hand is Tom Hanks, on deck to deliver one of his hammiest performances since Cloud Atlas. He’s wearing a fat suit and delivering one of the most inexplicable accents I’ve heard in a while.
The film’s plot ultimately ends up being a dramatic story about Elvis’s gradual failure and death due to exhaustion, drug addiction and despair brought on by Colonel Parker’s insistence in playing constant shows to pay off his own debts — turning Elvis the man into a machine for personal profit. The real Colonel was an infamous gambler who was implicated for financial fraud against the Presley estate, and the movie really captures the depths of his greed and sliminess.
Much of this ends up being convoluted and messy in execution. It’s a movie that approaches the life of Elvis Presley with a kitchen sink philosophy in regards to portraying the complicated life he lived. Unlike recent other maximalist films like RRR or Everything Everywhere All at Once, there’s no emotional grounding or clear dramatic through-line. It lacks clarity and relishes keeping as many plates in the air at once to stay entertaining, but it’s also a three hour long movie and eventually that magic trick gets tedious…