Showing now in theaters is the Baz Luhrmann Elvis biopic that made such a splash at Cannes last month. Starring Austin Butler in the title role, and with Tom Hanks portraying Col. Tom Parker, the man who made Elvis the first genuine global superstar; it’s a film that has Baz stamped all over it. So if you liked his Romeo+Juliet or his Moulin Rouge, you’ll instantly fall in love with his take on the life of Elvis Presley. It’s loud, bombastic, and there’s a lot of signature Baz-style woven into the story-telling.
The latest news reports surrounding the film even has Baz claiming that there’s a four-hour version, with tons of scenes he took out from the current theatrical release, which already comes in at a whopping two hours twenty. So be ready for the future marketing of this film, if it does become a box office success, to allow this four hour version to become readily available.
As it stands, this encapsulation of Elvis came to me more like a Greatest Hits package, where nothing is really wrong; but the whole film, other than the stylized flourishes, reeks of familiar, well-trodden territory. In fact, I’d venture to say that the film could be marketed successfully if it’s sold as a cautionary tale that a younger audience, who may not be familiar with Elvis, will be invited to view, to understand the roots of so many of the pop stars they love today.
For Elvis was a true trailblazer, a white singer, playing and imbibing black music & culture. If you’re talking cultural appropriation, he stands as the pioneer.
Having called it a cautionary tale, I must confess it’s one with all the rough edges smoothed out. There’s practically no speculative storytelling here, and if one is familiar with Elvis’ career trajectory, you may be disappointed with how this is all ‘lumang kuwento’. And I must say that for me, the first half of the film, chronicling his rise and early grasp of stardom, is much stronger than the second half – and this dichotomy pretty much mirrors Elvis’ career.
Olivia deJonge plays a very tame Priscilla, and you get appearances from the likes of Little Richard, Hank Snow, BB King, Mahalia Jackson, and how they impacted on the music of Elvis. Much is made of the relationship with his mother; but even with Col. Parker acting as narrator to the film from the opening scene, we don’t really dig deeper into the strained relationship between Parker and Elvis. At least not much beyond what’s common knowledge. This tragic bromance never gets the full blown treatment it deserves.
Music and the soundtrack have always been especially strong elements of Luhrmann’s films, and it’s no different here; where he often mixes songs and interpretations by today’s artists of Elvis’ hits. The choreography is impressive, but that’s basically Butler aping the real Elvis, as you can’t get more raunchy and sexy than the original – especially within the context of his era.
It’s always highly watchable, so one need not worry about being bored or falling asleep; but if you are already familiar with Elvis, you will leave the theater realizing you’ve spent an entertaining two hours and twenty, but learning nothing new about the legend of Graceland. But still, that’s not a bad price to pay given how influential the man actually was to popular music.