Elvis opens on Tom Hanks, donned in the least believable fat suit you’ve ever seen, sneering in a venomously outsized accent that he’s not “the villain of this here story” while the camera plunges and whirls through a CGI Las Vegas like a drone on LSD. It’s a very loud, very silly statement of purpose from Baz Luhrmann, the musical maximalist making a bid for the boomer demographic after netting high school seniors with The Great Gatsby. The man loves him a problematic legend.
If the introduction weren’t clear enough, the film has Hanks—playing Elvis’ notorious manager Colonel Tom Parker—pitch his services to a young Elvis in a carnival funhouse, distorted by mirrors and encircled by clowns. He’s sure the villain of this here story. He’s also, oddly enough, its framing device. The film is structured around (and baldly critical of) Parker’s recollections, painting Elvis as a tragic victim of greed.
Before the maudlin kicks in, the Colonel watches the musician play for some prim and proper youths. As Elvis launches into bluesy rock and gyrates his sinful hips, Luhrmann zooms in on the faces of girls in the crowd succumbing to newfound sexual ecstasy. It’s wildly funny—the extras go hard, and the camera goes harder, pushing in on the quivering mouths and voracious eyes of an accidental orgy. The only thing sexier than how Elvis moves is how the frame does. The film is a rush of big swings: jump cuts, crash zooms, whip pans, wacky transitions, crosscuts through time, sweaty slow-motion shots at canted angles. Letting all these choices smack me around was the closest I’ve come to multiple waves of pleasure.
With big swings inevitably come big misses, though. The editing can walk too fine a line between avant-garde and shots on shuffle, and as the movie’s runtime grows laborious, so too does the hugeness of it all. Worse is how some formal choices collide with key themes: one scene crosscuts between a live show and a segregationist rally, conflating Presley’s rebellion against a squeaky-clean image with the success of the civil rights movement. There’s a kernel of truth way off to the side—at the time, Elvis functioned as a socially acceptable conduit for Black music—but Luhrmann’s mythmaking gives the myth too much credit.
The scene is thankfully uncharacteristic of the film’s handle on the topic. The script repeatedly recognizes (well, states outright—Luhrmann is not a subtle filmmaker) that Elvis’ style was appropriated from Black music, often naming the artists from which he borrowed most heavily. The critique of capitalist greed, personified in the character of the Colonel, is couched in a larger commentary on race, evident from the second the Colonel discovers that the soulful voice on the radio is a white man’s. His whole demeanor lights up at the thought of Black art in a white package. Elvis traces every exploitation to advantage taken of the Black community. The use of anachronistic hip hop, ever so lucrative for The Great Gatsby, here returns ownership to the sound’s originators. It’s clumsy but clear-eyed.
The film sees the sociological effect of an Elvis more clearly than it sees the man. Framing the story around the Colonel, though effective for critique, is stifling for biography. Luhrmann’s metaphors strike at that tricky interiority—in one brilliant moment, the Colonel persuades Elvis to profit off his detractors by selling “I Hate Elvis” buttons, allegorizing the musician’s burgeoning, industry-born self-hatred—but as the rush dies down in the final scenes, Elvis remains at a distance. Perhaps the idea was for Austin Butler to carry the character, which is fair: his performance is outstanding, his singing voice unbelievable. But he’s no substitute for a legitimately curious script.
In all the dizzying entertainment, even Elvis’ critiques can fall short of the mark. It avoids Elvis’ predilection for young girls entirely (he dated a 14-year-old in his 40s!), and the Colonel’s refrain that we—the adoring, demanding fans—killed Elvis is the only thing less convincing than the fat suit, especially after the condemnations of the systems at play. But Elvis succeeds as often as it fails, and like its failures, its successes are nothing short of memorable.