Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis' Is a Horny Fantasia
The biopic starring Austin Butler as the "King of Rock and Roll" is messy but entrancing.
Baz Luhrmann understands lustful hysteria. He understood it when he photographed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes falling in love via a fish tank in Romeo + Juliet. He understood it when he invited us into the Moulin Rouge by way of Kylie Minogue dressed as a green fairy. He even understood it when Jay Gatsby introduced himself as fireworks shot off in his backyard. And in Elvis, his latest movie-slash-fantasia, he understands what his subject's gyrating hips could do.
Luhrmann loves a grand entrance and he gives Austin Butler as Elvis one for the ages. Playing at a small-town radio showcase, the King is introduced as a timid youngster, praying with his family, mourning the loss of his younger brother who died at childbirth. But when he gets on stage, something changes. It's like he's possessed. He launches into "It's Alright Mama" and his pelvis begins to thrust as his voice soars over the crowd. The homophobic taunts that first greeted him are quickly subsumed by the horniness that seems to overtake every girl and some boys in the audience. Lurhmann's camera never settles, but the frenetic energy is visceral. By the time he's zooming in on an anonymous woman's face, who appears to be on the verge of orgasm or religious ecstasy, you fundamentally get it.
One of the challenges of the music biopic is the ability to convey the magnetism of the performer it is trying to replicate. On that level, Elvis succeeds. Through a mix of Butler's sensational work—something between interpretation and seance—and Luhrmann's natural inclination for razzle dazzle, the film gets at the thigh-shuddering thrill of what it must have been like to watch Presley on stage. Luhrmann loves fireworks, and he knows he has a human firework in Butler and does everything to spotlight his star.
But Luhrmann is also fundamentally a messy filmmaker, and Elvis is a messy film. Caught between traditional biopic and Baz Spectacular Spectacular it occasionally falls into all familiar beats where the surprise of Butler's energy and Luhrmann's style is subsumed by the conventions they are trying to balk. And then there's Tom Hanks, whose Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' manager, is our narrator-slash-ringmaster. Hanks' performance embodies the concept of "your mileage may vary."
Coated in prosthetics, Hanks affects an approximation of Parker's unplaceable accent, a mix of his native Dutch ancestry and his instincts toward Americana. It's both inherently laughable—I can't get the way he says "wiggling" out of my head—and fully in keeping with the tone of the movie. Parker is Luhrmann's villain, but he's also his stand-in. It's clear that Luhrmann identifies with the man who calls himself the "Snowman," a carnival barker with an eye for talent and splash. We first see Elvis through Parker's eyes, which all but projects cartoon dollar signs mixed with heart eyes. But Luhrmann is also revolted by Parker, who insists he wasn't the cause of Elvis' downfall as he struts through an empty casino in a hospital robe, his fake skin now covered in liver spots. It's this push and pull that eventually wins you over, turning Hanks' admittedly over-the-top work into something beyond parody.
Luhrmann's near-compulsive restlessness is a good fit for master showmen like Elvis and Parker. In the first minutes of the film—after a bedazzled Warner Bros. logo—his camera almost never stops moving, swooping around a model of Las Vegas. Subtlety is not Luhrmann's strength. To make the case that Elvis was bringing Black culture into the mainstream, he mashes up blues and rap as the King visits Memphis' Beale Street, combining the vocals of Shonka Dukureh, playing Big Mama Thornton singing "Hound Dog," and Doja Cat. Luhrmann can't quite bring himself to actually delve into the real questions of appropriation versus appreciation that circulate Elvis' identity. The director appreciates the radical nature of Elvis' style and the way it angered segregationists, but the Black artists featured also treat Presley as fundamentally a hero rather than someone who used their art for his own gain.
More than anything, Luhrmann, and basically everyone on screen, is horny for Elvis and, in turn, Butler. It goes beyond the screaming fangirls. You can see the lust in the eyes of Kodi Smit-McPhee playing Elvis' early touring companion Jimmy Rodgers Snow. It's there in the young boy who lights up when he sees Elvis on TV to the anger of the conservative household around him. Even Elvis' scenes opposite his mother, played by Helen Thomson with painted-on eyebrows, have an Oedipal quality.
And it all works, mainly because Butler is so good. The actor, best known prior to this for a small part in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and teen heartthrob status on The CW series The Carrie Diaries, is completely captivating. He has mastered not only the voice and the moves, but the ineffable star quality of his character. (Can you tell I'm getting flustered?) Sure, both him and the movie start to struggle as the timeline slowly creeps to Elvis' death, bogged down in the addiction tropes that have become de rigueur for these projects. But even that can't fully dull the spark of what Butler is doing.
Elvis is overstuffed and frantic, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do in reminding audiences of the power of Elvis Presley. He's Romeo or Gatsby or Satine at the Moulin Rouge. He's impossible to ignore. With Butler as his copilot, Luhrmann sets loins afire.