The Pressure of Being Legendary in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

The director Vincente Minnelli told Judy Garland on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis that she needed to take the film more seriously. He said, “You have to believe this. Everything that you do has got to be the most important thing that has ever happened to you in your life.” He saved the film with authenticity; it was his idea of life. Austin Butler’s performance in Elvis (2022) suggests that Baz Luhrmann may have said the same thing to another degree. He may have told him that every step, every grin, and every wiggle has got to be the most important thing that has ever happened to anyone. This is how he elevates the merchandise icon, signer-superstar, and would-be cinema throb to the level of a cultural necessity. But unlike Minnelli, he avoids authenticity. He advocates the epic enormity of Elvis’ impact to the point that it's hard to mistake his importance, or recognize his humanity.

Colonel Parker (Tom Hanks) may not believe there’s a difference, which is key to the film’s point-of-view as told by him. Luhrmann puts Parker in the driver’s seat of the Cadillac of Elvis’ life, suggesting that his only skill was knowing how to hotwire a vulnerable genius (he’s like a skewed impression of Mozart’s Salieri). Rather than envying his pupil’s talents, he revels in the godlike status of his workhorse (he may have invented it). “What is hate worth if it’s free?” he chirps, suggesting that the Presley estate should devote funds to anti-Elvis merchandise too. The film makes no mistake of Parker’s failures as Elvis’ manager, but by offering no evidence of his successes it ends up fabricating incompetence to overstate it. To any viewer willing to glance at Wikipedia after the film ends, misrepresentation ironically gives this version of Parker the tone of a smear campaign despite the fact that it's no stretch of anyone's imagination to see him as an opportunistic, toxic man.

Luhrmann tries to justify a position that most people would agree with in an accurate retelling with situations that are 99% fictional, such as a fake recounting of creative differences that did not exist during the Comeback Christmas Special ("Ver is ze Santi Claus?"). He leaves the viewer with no clearer impression of their dynamic than before since the toxicity is real but the conflicts in the film are not. It doesn’t help that Hanks is all shook up by this role, encased in plastic flesh to the point of strangling his proven skill at physical comedy. His strain-worthy carnie accent invites the viewer to think of Parker as a huckster foreigner rubbing off on the raw power of his discovered golden boy, which may not be far off from a version of the truth. But in the context of so much fabricated history, Parker’s relationship with Elvis, like his face, never ventures beyond the plastic. Outside of the well-advertised scenes at the hayride and Ferris wheel (both fake), their interactions are tiny hammers driving the nails of common biopic beats, obscured but not rescued by the over-creative visuals telling them.

With few exceptions in its 159-minute runtime, Elvis shows interactions with the parents (Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh), Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and even the Colonel only through heightened plot sensations, as though the next beat is the only thing in its field of view. It never becomes boring, yet it rarely encourages a renewed understanding of these dynamics. Priscilla is a prime example. She's introduced pattering with Elvis in the way a tennis ball patters with a wall (the audience thinks, here’s someone who can keep up with him). He’s sitting in his uniform with a chilled-out smile (he joined the army to escape defamation, according to the film). She’s going on about how angry her dad will be if he finds him in her bedroom, a beat that Luhrmann plays as a simple one-scene obstacle. But if you look it up, you’ll learn that Priscilla was fourteen at the time, which makes the situation trickier. Elvis seems to have been nothing but gentlemanly to her, but Luhrmann fears even the possibility of complication more than he desires intrigue, so in order to convince the audience of his intent, he can't let them in on the history. Scenes that should be interesting have the stoic self-belief of a signed photo. At times, Luhrmann is a better Colonel Parker than Hanks.

He turns moments of indecision into moments of over-significance. He turns the potential for vulnerability into "statements." For instance, he bases Elvis' whole creative outlook on the embarrassing "hound dog" appearance, yet doesn't show it (he may be afraid we'll remember how the real Elvis reacted in comparison to this self-obsessed artiste). He reimagines the “Trouble” concert as an epicenter of censorship, sending Elvis into convulsions in a sexual possession ritual set to an elongated impression of a song that had not been written yet when that concert took place. Even Elvis’ final transformation into a tragic self-parody (or an even more tragic clone of his devilish manager) isn’t something the film can admit, despite demanding it to be accepted with cosmic importance. A newsman mentions Elvis’ expanding figure and declining appeal – Luhrmann still shows Butler with a boyish waist until nearly the last scene. Only his eyes, in moments, seem touched by change.

The visuals sweep away these details rather than clarify them, pounding at the film nonstop like a feature-length bout of tinnitus, exploding every molecule in sweat and glitter. Any frame deemed too uneventful is cut down and stitched together to six others on the screen at once. In four seconds, Parker’s eyes may become roulette wheels as the IV line beside his hospital bed stretches into phone towers, up into the skylights of the hotel, exploding in fireworks. Crucially, the transitions are manic without becoming dramatic. This comes from their desire to be splatter art conflicting with their obligation to be a biopic, reducing the entire mid-century to a single aesthetic. Since the “Trouble” concert roars with electric guitar riffs, there’s no discernible shift in energy for the segments 20 years later when those sounds actually started existing. The result is a wild energy so homogenously wild that its specific appeals and even its meaningful transitions become forgettable (even if you could never forget the headache).

By refusing to accept a single frame as insignificant, they all become the same amount of over-emphasized, resulting in a pushy movie that never lets the audience decide how they feel about this cultural icon despite demanding that they feel a specific way. It swirls to the next teary-eyed monument (more than one scene involves Elvis misting up over the death of a cultural figure) before anything can be scrutinized. It’s full of songs, yet none ever seem to finish. Even Butler’s superb imitation of the mannerisms of the King leaves out the parts that weren’t as superb; he doesn’t become a parody, even when Elvis himself did. Like the film, he’s a big-budget tribute act. Luhrmann may have considered using real Elvis footage as the ultimate success of his experiment, but rather than instilling convincing humanity, it gives the film the clamped-down feeling of forced purposefulness of a very, very long trailer (or a savagely prolonged memorial service). He denied the character his ability to be quaint, which robbed the man of the traits that made him deserve the praise Luhrmann anguishes over in the first place.

The result is an admirably exhausting extrapolation of the real Elvis’ high-minded hopes but one that lacks his most basic appeal. The film repeatedly connects his musical style to the inspiration of the spirituals he experienced growing up in predominantly black neighborhoods in Memphis. But rather than instilling a sense of respect, the over-simple “cause and effect” mentality of Elvis’ upbringing creates an oddly insulting fantasy. The film not only omits every other inspiration he had (he once called Roy Orbison “the greatest singer in the world”), but the simplification ironically reduces the film’s well-intentioned black characters (including Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King, and Little Richard) to thematically prominent yet dramatically underdeveloped bystanders. Luhrmann refused to accept an Elvis without advocacy, with a purpose in the grander scheme of all types of “relations” in American history, despite the real Elvis thinking of himself purely as an entertainer. When asked about the Vietnam war protesters in 1972, he replied, “Honey, I’d just as soon to keep my own personal views about that to myself cause I’m just an entertainer and I’d rather not say.” That was the Elvis that Luhrmann seems unable to handle.

The aspect most missing, the reason why the Butler/Luhrmann double-team is a great Elvis impression yet almost never feels like Elvis, is that both the portrayal and the film lack his ease. Luhrmann went all-out edgy to communicate how different Elvis seemed “back then,” converting his musical tours into furious sexual epics. But this was never the core of Elvis’ appeal. Watch any performance, particularly early on – he’s not just performing in a way that excited audiences to tummy-dropping levels of enthusiasm. He’s doing it in a way that seems like no big deal. He was in on the joke of their pleasure, which was really the joke of himself. That was the “feeling the audience wasn’t sure they should enjoy,” as Parker put it. He grinned when they screamed, performing as though he was imitating himself for fun (watch the 1956 performance of “Don’t Be Cruel” on The Ed Sullivan Show, with the camera placed strategically above hip-level to avoid controversy as the squealing audience suggests with no uncertainty when those hips were moving, and how). Like any good lover, Elvis never made himself too big a deal. He wasn’t just a hound dog – he made it seem like a fun idea.

For Luhrmann, this wasn’t enough. That whole dynamic of self-assessment was lost on him in a sea of admiration. Since Elvis admired James Dean, the film feels like it has to turn him into a rebel with a cause. The appearance of ease of the real Elvis goes against everything Luhrmann believes about filmmaking, where every wink becomes the most serious gesture ever executed, so the film loses the real tragedy, which has always been his jarring loss of that appearance. By the Vegas years, he felt himself slipping into the actual joke he used to be confident enough to make yet not believe. His performances had become serious (so had America), climaxing with his final rendition of “Unchained Melody,” the rawest, sloppiest, and most human thing he ever sang. If he’s half-Kurt Cobain from as early as the hayride, brimming with edgelord advocacy, his life acquires the false impression of an Icarus story. But he didn't fly too close to the sun – he just didn't have any support when he fell.

When reduced to a stoic artist-prophet stewed in the self-acclaimed trademarked type of tragedy that looks great on a t-shirt (and just as great whether it's pro- or anti-Elvis), Luhrmann accidentally cost his idol the key to his lastability, which is his ability to make light of himself. Ironically, this also cost him his tragedy since losing that ability was the loss that mattered. It’s what made the King see himself as a Jester ("I've never done anything lasting," he told backup singer Kathy Westmoreland shortly before his death, afraid he would be forgotten). Luhrmann’s mouthwash of cinematic techniques and pumped-up performances seemed perfect to turn this man into an institution of epic allure. And if anything good has come of it, it's that he was the right director to make Elvis seem relevant in 2022, and to his credit, a lot of people who only knew him from Lilo & Stitch are now listening to some of the best music ever made for the first time. But he was never going to be the one to make him real. The ironic part about being legendary is that no one will see you as the King if you believe in it as much as they do.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures

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