So… Elvis, huh
A visually stunning spectacle lacking story in 2 hours and 39 minutes.
To be honest, I’m a bit confused about what I watched. I know we love spectacle, and when Baz Luhrmann makes a movie, one thing we know is that it is going to be a spectacle. However, that doesn’t make this filmgoing experience any easier.
Before getting into the movie, I want to credit Baz Luhrmann for what he did for musicals and for recreating musicals with his ideas. He is an auteur whose films excite audiences because he has a firm idea of his filmmaking style. A prime example here is with Moulin Rouge. And with The Great Gatsby where he brought a vital novel in American literature to the cinema.
But Elvis was, at the same time, far too much and, at the same time, far too little. That doesn’t make much sense, but it is immediately what I thought when the film switched from plot point to plot point to plot point, almost forgetting that it was telling a biopic of an American icon.
It’s 2 hours and 39 minutes long, and I still somehow felt like this.
I’m also not going to act like I know a lot about Elvis and his songs because I was never a big fan. But while I was watching the movie, I swear that his career in movies was a big part of his life. The film takes significant aspects of his life and includes them in often very short, one-line dialogue from his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
And let’s talk about the character, Colonel Parker. About halfway through the film, we realise that the character is supposed to be from the Netherlands. Knowing many Dutch people and living in the Netherlands, I can say I have no idea what accent that was.
But I thought, “huh, maybe my fellow film watchers will say, “Yeah, that’s a Dutch accent in English,” since you know, they’re Dutch.”
There’s a line where it’s mentioned that he’s Dutch, where many people in the cinema laughed or sighed. Maybe it’s a mix of an accent from the American South and a Dutch accent, but it was not it.
The movie focuses on the relationship between Elvis and his mother in a very 1-dimensional way, immediately getting bogged down in biopic tropes with the family being untrustworthy of new influence and new industry in the character’s life.
The relationship with his wife, Priscilla, also seemed quite simple and 1-dimensional where I’ve read that it was a big part of his life, obviously.
I think there’s around 1 scene where we meet them in Germany as they kiss. Then, they’re married. Then around two scenes later, when Priscilla shows up again, they begin having marriage problems. Then divorce.
The movie tries so many things that it fails to dive into any of them besides the relationship between Elvis and his manager.
As a music lover, which Baz Luhrmann obviously is as well, I’ve read about the music industry and so many of the shady contracts that exist within the industry. Still, I guess that begs the question of why having the manager then be the narrator in the film besides the point of him being there for Elvis’s career. Elvis lived a very rich life, but the question is, “Did we need a narrator?”
The first time he hears Elvis, he hears that he’s white and not black, and he audibly says, “he’s white,” and it plays like a scene from a cartoon where Dollar signs go off in the character’s eyes. We’re supposed to care about his relationship with his manager, with his wife, with his mother, with his father, that what do we really end up caring about?
We’re also supposed to care about his never-ending fight to be a serious artist vs. being a circus act, as Colonel Parker calls him. We’re also supposed to care that he cared about social issues, black culture, and black music.
Just a mention here that the random insertions in the film show that Elvis cares about black music and culture do nothing to question the conversation around Elvis stealing from black creators. If nothing else, it only raises more questions about Elvis’s relationship with black culture.
This is what I mean when I say a lot is being told and at the same not much is being told.
At some point, Colonel Parker says, “you can make ten stupid decisions, as long as you make one smart one,” but it seems from the movie that Elvis’ life for all his talent was bogged down by stupid decisions made by those around him that made him into this puppet for their needs.
So when the manager gives him a speech when he’s on the verge of leaving about both of them being lonely and needing someone and never being able to “reach Mount Eternity”, it rings hollow, because the man has stolen so much money from him and is using him as he’s personal bank account.
But Elvis goes back to join him in Las Vegas.
So as I said, I’m not an Elvis fan, but did Elvis deserve a better portrayal than this?
This is nothing to say about the musical performances in this film because they are great. They are filmed with so many cuts to reflect the frenetic pace at which Elvis performed and captivated audiences.
Baz Luhrmann’s combination of different genres, his musical cues, and his choices make for a modern reflection of Elvis. Cinematographer Mandy Walker also does a fantastic job of keeping up with the director’s demands.
The musical performances and cinematography are excellent, as is Austin Butler’s performance, but it doesn’t come together for me.
But maybe that’s because I’m not an Elvis fan, so simply seeing him on screen doesn’t mean too much to me.
But if Elvis’ fans are happy, I’m happy they’re happy.
N.B. Thank you to Malina for recommending Elvis.