There’s a scene very early on in Elvis, the new mega-biopic from Baz Luhrmann, where I felt myself relax and sigh with relief.
Actually, it’s a collection of numerous scenes in one. Luhrmann won’t let something as trivial as linearity restrain him. Not in the medium of film, which in his hands turns into a religious experience of auditory and sensory overload.
Elvis (a stunning Austin Butler) readies himself for his first gig. The crowd is less than enthused. We’re hitting all the clichés of biopic cinema. He stands before the audience, eyes darting into the unimpressed abyss, and we flash to his childhood. It’s hallucinatory, vivid, and unreliable. He peers into a brothel, where men and women dance in ways he won’t understand for years to come. A black musician plays Hound Dog.
Another sound catches his attention. A revivalist church tent, only some meters away. He rushes to it.
The pace quickens. The rhythm of gospel music compels Elvis to dance. In his mind, it is as ecstatic as the erotic swaying in the brothel. Hound Dog envelops us.
And we’re back on the stage. Austin Butler draws breath – and transforms into the spirit of Elvis.
They’ve done it, I thought.
Elvis is not a strict biopic. It couldn’t be. Elvis, the character, is an icon. Elvis, the person, is a mystery. Everyone has their own say in who and what he was. So Luhrmann, smartly, doesn’t even try. Instead, he tells of Elvis the myth, the American Legend, and the perversity of fame.
His narrator, the weasely and cartoonish Colonel Parker (Tom Hanks), is as unreliable as they come. The entire story is a fever dream, equal parts melancholy, elegiac, and furious. Parker believes himself a hero, yet even his recollection can’t combat the vivid portrait of Elvis that lives in the American psyche. So the film turns into a battle of narratives, where the truth only occasionally punches through.
It’s a literate and smart approach, one that buries its subtleties inside a maximalist shell. Every single scene is a dazzling work of art. A gargantuan odyssey into opulence. Yet they are all in service of a singular vision, something which Luhrmann has never mastered as precisely and eloquently as now. In refusing to adhere to strict narrative structures, Luhrman liberates himself to free-associate Elvis with everything that flows in the river of time.
We hear the shots that kill Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy as if they occur next door. The roar of the audience is ever-present, even in the quiet of isolated hotel towers. Vietnam looms heavily in the background, draped over the golden structures that shield Elvis from reality. It’s not that his life is built on fabulism – America itself has pulled luxurious wool over its eyes.
Equally brave is acknowledging just how much Elvis was influenced by African-American gospel music, rhythm and blues, and culture. Luhrmann has no qualms about calling out the systemic racism that refused black entertainers from entering the mainstream, while simultaneously robbing them of their accomplishments.
As Elvis sings his most famous tunes, we soar back through time to hear them performed by the original artists. Does it take away from the iconic singer? Absolutely not. And Elvis never hid his origins. But it is an important underpinning of vast cultural value to highlight the roots. Too many have ignored them for so long.
At the center of this visual spectacle is Austin Butler, a magnificent star who will be a household name by the end of summer. His performance is nothing short of breathtaking. Something beyond imitation, beyond mere reproduction. He captures the spirit of Elvis. The idea of the man as we’ve imagined him, and imbues it with nuance and humanity. Whatever the reality once was, Butler’s performance allows us a peek beyond the veil.
It would be easy to dismiss Hanks as a vaudevillian looney toon in comparison. His performance is so broad, that it requires multiple lanes to accommodate. But there is a purpose to the madness. Colonel Parker does not exist. He is a fiction of an outsider designed to emulate what he believes is an American standard. Hanks, the everyman of American cinema, brilliantly understands the cracked mirror he’s using as a reflection. For him, the depravity of Las Vegas is akin to a church. Like Luhrmann, Hanks finds subtlety in the outrageousness.
Elvis is a triumph and possibly the best film Baz Luhrmann has made. It’s the work of a smart, maximalist artist at their peak. A dazzlingly poetic and deeply empathetic portrait of both person and country and the deep way they intertwine. Luhrmann paints an intricate picture of America as an iconoclast, tearing down power structures and sacred cows as he does.
On top of that, Elvis is a powerhouse of music, superb performances, and immaculate filmmaking. It’s a religious experience of a film. A spiritual exercise in moviemaking. One of the best films of the year – any year.