Dir.: Baz Luhrmann; Cast: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Kodi Smit McPhee, Richard Roxburgh; US/Australia 2022, 159 min.
Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) was – and still is – the most successful recording artist on this planet, so hiring Baz Luhrmann, well known for his baroque output, to make a film of the entertainer’s life, and turn in a handsome profit seemed like a brilliant idea.
But casting Tom Hanks as the singer’s gambling, cheating and lying manager Colonel Tom Parker put Austin Butler’s Presley at a glaring disadvantage. Parker, who voices the linear narrative, is also a rather unreliable witness to the story; Butler is certainly entertaining and charismatic as the titular hero, but does he do a convincing job as the hip-swivelling legend? Let’s just say few performers would have fared better opposite a behemoth like Hanks. Olivia DeJonge, as Elvis’ wife Priscilla, is even more short-changed: she brings up their daughter and suffers in silence, while her husband shags and devours pills like candies. And no mention is made of her being a teen bride; Priscilla was fourteen when she met the twenty-four-year-old Elvis for the first time in 1959.
The writers offer no real explanation as to why Elvis left for the army as a rebel in 1958, only to return two years later his bad boy instincts buttoned down. Amateur psychology is used to lay the blame on the shady Parker and his greed – we are led to believe the scrupulous manager of dubious Dutch origins had a hold over Elvis using the star as a cash cow to payoff his own mounting debts. Presley’s father Vernon (Roxburgh) was a weak role model and ended up in jail. Elvis’ actress mother Gladys (Thomson) is also just an underwritten sketch.
Luhrmann dishes up the legend’s mammoth musical history in all its glittering details weaving in a strand about his formative musical associations with the segregated black artists Little Richard and Mahalia Jackson who lend vibrance to the story. DoP Mandy Walker, who worked with Luhrmann on Australia, pulls out all the stops in a biopic that runs for nearly three hours. Rather than zero-in on a pivotal era of the star’s career, Luhrmann merely touches on his entire life, and any depth or resonance is lost in the cacophony of flashing lights and noise.
Behind the cinematic showcase lies a hollow heart. Luhrmann, an obsessive showman himself, again goes overboard with his obsession for split screens in another sparkling montage that will satisfy the lowest common denominator. But having spent all his budget on appearances there’s nothing left for the script. The story is a classic but the straightforward chronicle approach takes away the element of surprise leaving us with an ‘all singing all dancing’ cabaret showpiece that ends in tears; a burnished biopic to please the investors rather than arthouse enthusiasts with discerning minds. AS
IN CINEMAS FROM JUNE 24TH 2022