Watching a Baz Luhrmann movie is like sitting in front of a gold confetti-blasting canon. It’s style over substance, obnoxious over subtle—a nightmare for minimalist cinephiles like me.
For anyone with a smidgen of an attention span, conveying a groundbreaking musician’s artistry on film just takes hitting a record button. Ever see last year’s overlooked The Beatles: Get Back? It is a basic, fly-on-the-wall observance of the genius of The Beatles while collaborating, composing, and rehearsing a “live album” concept. It’s brilliant and unfeigned. Every nuance of the band members’ personality, shortcoming, and raw talent is exposed in the most human of ways.
No special effects necessary.
Baz would probably get bored in minutes, and I realize many others would too, so we’re left with this cinematic MTV video without a pause button. (Of course, The King never got a pause button either.)
Instead of a biopic, Baz Luhrmann detonates a glamour montage of an idolized Elvis Presley with a deafening execution and a surprisingly warm aftermath. I have to admit that after all the noise, I left the theatre empathizing for the human being who just wanted to love his fans. The music industry—as it does to most of our music legends—consumes the singer’s spirit, and it is heartrending to watch.
As expected with his cartoonish style, Baz blazes through the surface-level headlines of Elvis’s life: How his sound was influenced by the black rhythm and blues singers of his youth; his waist-wiggling stirred controversy; how he got tangled in a greedy manager relationship with Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks with stung-by-a-bee makeup and a wretched accent); and, how he endured a Vegas residency that began as heaven and got worked into hell.
You won’t find any song meaning context or composer collaboration information here. There’s no mention of how Elvis developed his unique vocal vibrato, picked out his infamous gemstone jumpsuits, juggled an array of exploitative record contracts, or craved Fool’s Gold Loaves (peanut butter and jelly and a pound of bacon mashed into French bread for $65).
Friendly and romantic relationships are barely explored deeper than Wiki knowledge, and several of Tom Hanks’s inclusions seem fabricated and superfluous at the same time.
There is, however, a colossal saving grace found in Austin Butler’s magnetic performance as The King. The lip curl, toes-to-the-ground act, vocal quality inflection, and wild hand gestures come off pristine. The scene where he first performs onstage at the Vegas International Hotel, singing “Suspicious Minds,” is absolutely spellbinding.
It is here where Baz does what he should have done for most of the movie: He simply hits record and watches Austin do his thing as Elvis without slow-mo shots, rapid-pace cuts, and random black-and-white freeze frames. The result is a miracle. Austin humanizes Elvis having the time of his life, and your heart simply melts.
It is a shame that Baz—as per usual—gets in the way of his own movie, yet Austin Butler is enough to recommend it to both Elvis aficionados and younger audiences. I doubt I will see it again, but I’d bet Elvis would enjoy it over another Fool’s Gold Loaf.
*** out of *****