Cannes 2022: ‘Elvis,’ as remixed by Baz Luhrmann
By Manohla Dargis
Close to the start of “Elvis,” Baz Luhrmann’s hyperventilated, fitfully entertaining and thoroughly deranged highlight reel of the life and times of Elvis Presley, I wondered what I was watching. I kept wondering as Luhrmann split the screen, chopped it to bits, slowed the motion, splashed the color and turned Elvis not just into a king, but also a savior, a martyr and a transformational American civil-rights figure who — through his innocence, decency, music and gyrating hips — helped heal a nation.
In conventional terms, “Elvis,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on earlier this week, can be classed as a biographical portrait, a cradle-to-grave (more or less) story of a little boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who became a pop-culture sensation and sad cautionary tale — played as an adult by the appealing, hard-working Austin Butler — despite the evil man, aka Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who groomed him. But Luhrmann — whose films include “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby” and, um, “Australia” — doesn’t do simple or ordinary. A visual maximalist, he likes to go big and then bigger, and he likes to go super-splashy. Most filmmakers just want to get the shot; the great ones strive for perfection. Luhrmann wants to bedazzle it.
The movie’s narrative axis and, strangely, its most vividly realized character is Col. Parker, whom Hanks embodies with an enormous, obviously false belly, flamboyant jowls, a nose that juts like the prow of a ship and a baffling accent. I would have loved to have listened in on Luhrmann and Hank’s conversations about their ideas for the character; if nothing else, it might have explained what in the world they were after here. I honestly haven’t a clue, although the image of Sydney Greenstreet looming menacingly in “The Maltese Falcon” repeatedly came to mind, with a dash of “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Written by Luhrmann and several others, the movie traces Elvis’ trajectory through Parker, a curious choice given that the colonel is the villain of the piece. They meet when Elvis is a young unknown and still under the protective wing of his mother and father. As soon as the colonel sees Elvis perform — or rather, witnesses the euphoric reactions of the shrieking female audiences — he realizes that this kid is a gold mine. The colonel swoops in, seduces Elvis and puts him under his exploitative sway. The rest is history, one that Luhrmann tracks from obscurity to Graceland and finally Las Vegas.
Even non-Elvis-ologists should recognize the outlines of this story, as it shifts from the beautiful boy to the sensational talent and the fallen idol. That said, those who don’t know much about the ugliness of Elvis’ life may be surprised by some of the ideas Luhrmann advances, particularly when it comes to the civil rights movement. A white musician who performed and helped popularize Black music for white America, Elvis was unquestionably a critically important crossover figure. What’s discomforting is the outsized role that Luhrmann gives Elvis in America’s excruciating racial history.
In the gospel of Elvis that Luhrmann preaches here, the titular performer isn’t only an admirer or interpreter (much less exploiter) of Black music. He is instead a prophetic figure of change who — because of the time he spends in the Black church, Black juke joints and Black music clubs — will be able to bridge the divide between the races or at least make white people shake, rattle and roll. As a child, Elvis feels the spirit in the pulpit and beyond; later, he becomes an instrument for change by copying Black ecstasy and pumping his slim hips at white audiences, sending them into sexualized frenzy.
As Elvis ascends and the colonel schemes, Luhrmann keeps the many parts whirring, pushing the story into overdrive. The 1950s give way to the ’60s and ’70s amid songs, pricey toys, assassinations, personal tragedies and the usual rest, though I don’t remember hearing the words Vietnam War. Family members enter and exit, tears are spilled, pills popped. There are significant gaps (no Ann-Margret or Richard Nixon), and, outside of a nice scene in which the Las Vegas Elvis arranges a large ensemble of musicians, there’s also little about how Elvis actually made music. He listens to Black music and, almost by osmosis and sheer niceness, becomes the King of Rock ’n’ Roll
While Butler pouts, smolders and sweats, he has been tasked with what seems an impossible role. Elvis’ ravishing beauty, which remained intact even as his body turned to bloat, is one hurdle, and so too was his charisma and talent. Butler’s performance gains in power as Elvis ages, particularly when he hits Las Vegas. One insurmountable problem, though, is that Luhrmann never allows a single scene or song to play out without somehow fussing with it — cutting into it, tarting it up, turning the camera this way and that, pushing in and out — a frustrating, at times maddening habit that means he’s forever drawing attention to him him him and away from Butler, even when his willing young star is doing his very hardest to burn down the house.