The Satisfactory Polarization of “Elvis”

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 *****

31 thoughts on “The Satisfactory Polarization of “Elvis”

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  1. I think I’ll pass on this one after reading all the negative reviews. I can just listen to Elvis on my own… or watch the old Elvis romcoms on Prime! Mainly, I don’t want to watch Tom Hanks make a fool of himself… 😞

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  2. I saw it at the weekend, and despite it being almost three hours long, it felt rushed… I enjoyed it as a spectacle, and Butler was superb as Elvis, but I agree with the review that said it was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at 4000mph. There was no depth, just box ticking. The most emotional moment came at the end when we moved to real footage of Elvis singing just weeks before he died… That hit home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that last scene of The King singing at the piano hit me hard too. And, Butler was at his best when Baz just left him alone with the special effects and hit the record button. Other than that, it was a lot of forgettable noise. All about Butler 🙂

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  3. I think your thoughts and mine align perfectly on Baz Luhrman. He’s way too flashy for me, and it’s often to the detriment of his stories. I actually could not stand his version of The Great Gatsby. It infuriated me how he used modern songs in a story set in the roaring 20s. There’s just absolutely no point to that. Like, he could achieve the same effect of a busy, colorful environment using era-appropriate songs, IMO

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    1. It seems, the movie is to evoke a younger audience to the subject or at least be relevant now. I didn’t have any problems with him being flashy in that movie. Despite being panned by the critics, I think he did a good job.

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        1. I understand the criticisms completely. I mean, I’m a stickler for tradition and getting the scene right etc because I loved the book, but I like to revisit that movie when it comes on cable, so he did something right at least for my tastes in movie viewing.

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          1. For sure, and I really do wish I could be on that side of his films! He does some imaginative things but, yeah, I can only handle so much of it.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m right there with you, Tom. Baz will say that since Gatsby and Elvis were ahead of their time, the complementing soundtrack should be the same, but the result is a distracting, out-of-box sensation that distances itself from the focal subject. You can hear the cha-ching sounds in Baz’a head as he adds “artists” to this soundtrack. All cashgrab. All product.

      BERNIE SAUER ’97

      Performing Arts Teacher – Choir Director

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      Regis Jesuit High School

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  4. I love that ‘Gold-Confetti blasting canon’ description of Baz’s movies. I think it worked for something so ‘Baroque’ like Moulin Rouge, but other contexts not so much. I also liked what he did with ‘The Great Gatsby’. ‘Australia’ was a nightmare. I didn’t even know this movie had come out yet. I’m looking forward to seeing this and as always I find your reviews engaging. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, OB! Yeah, Baz isn’t my fave, but his bludgeon blow style is certainly unique compared to the canon of living directors today. It’s just too bad that it’s more a distraction than a complement to the life of an American icon. Give Baz a Xanax, I say 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like his Pizazz and how he goes out on a limb. As you implied, his stuff is a bit hit or miss. You know you are in for something unorthodox and a spectacle of sorts. I admire him, but he probably wouldn’t be my first director to do a biopic.
        Btw, I saw Top Gun for the second time with my kids. Now that is a fkn great movie. I disliked the first one too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. OB, Top Gun: Maverick is not only a solid sequel, it’s a fkn great movie on its own, like you said! I need to see it again. It won’t be the same at home. I saw it at a Dolby theatre, and my seat rumbled and rocked with every turn! Extraordinary! That’s what summer at the movies is all about!

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          1. Man, I would have loved to see in one of those 4D cines. You made me envious. There is one relatively close and my son wants to see it again, so I hope it’s playing there when he is here again Wednesday. I hope Tom Cruise gets a nomination, not. that the Oscars means anything worthwhile these days.

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  5. These music biopics always make me nervous. I usually would rather to end up watching well made detailed documentary. I don’t like the phrase “artistic license” because in other words…we do what we want whether it’s true or not.

    Elvis was a bombastic person so that might be the reason for the director.
    I have re-watched the Elton John one after talking to Matt….I did like it beter the second time around…and the Queen one was alright but again…facts were not right. That bugs me….I can’t help it…I am one of the people who don’t get bored seeing what really happened.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There are so many liberties taken in this one that I think a true Elvis fan will either insulted. Yet, the ones who just loved his music and persona and energy might have a good time. I’m with you: I’d rather watch a doc to get a real sense of the real subject. I can’t say I wasn’t entertained and more intrigued by The King, but after doing more research on him, I believe this to be more a fiction pic than a biopic. Walk the Line remains one of my faves when it comes to a musical pioneer biopic. What did you think of that one?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do like Walk The Line…I thought Phoenix did a great job as always.
        Yea I will end up watching it with a grain of salt…but I will probably watch it.
        A well made doc goes a long way. Like The Kids Are Alright and a few others that tell the truth. I wouldn’t even recommend the Beatles Anthology because even IT whitewashed things. Whenever artists are involved…they will sometimes skim over the ugly things.
        Living in a Material World is a great one also.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I gotta see Living in a Material World. I agree with everything you said. I wish there was a doc or pic on Billy Joel, but I also know he’s the kind of underdog who wouldn’t want that attention, and it would be far fetched anyway. I learned more about The Beatles as a kid just watching Hard Day’s Night 🙂

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          1. Oh I love A Hard Days Night… one of the best rock and roll movies ever…kinda like the Marx Brothers meet rock and roll lol

            Liked by 1 person

            1. No I have not got a chance to see even one movie! That one and the Elvis one is on my list…sorry Matt!

              Liked by 1 person

  6. The thought the acting was excellent, but I did not like the story and I felt it did not make Elvis likable enough. Plus, the film was a bit too long. One should always leave the audience wanting a little more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree. The more I do research on Elvis, the more I discover how much was fabricated in the movie. Definitely too long. Maybe it’s a decent introduction of the icon to younger audiences? I’m not sure…

      Liked by 1 person

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