Section: Arts

Baz Luhrmann’s glamorous new biopic flattens Elvis Presley

Baz Luhrmann, famed director of “Moulin Rouge,” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” and the “The Great Gatsby” (2013), is back with his distinctly colorful vision in this summer’s “Elvis.” Released in June, “Elvis” is a hodgepodge of all the things audiences have come to expect of Luhrmann’s oeuvre: beautiful actors in extravagant costumes, fantastical musical numbers, Cukor-esque melodrama and a tendency to value image over depth.

Elvis Presley is an interesting choice of protagonist for a contemporary biopic marketed towards Generation Z and Millennials. Unlike other vintage luminaries such as the Beatles or David Bowie, Elvis is a relatively unpopular artist among young people, although the retrograde music trend continues to burn bright. According to a study by YouGov in 2018, only eight percent of 18- to 24-year-olds listened to Elvis monthly, while none listened on a daily basis. Additionally, compared to the Beatles’ 1.3 billion streams in 2016, Elvis was only streamed 382 million times. But with his affinity for glam performance and somber endings, it is no surprise that Luhrmann was drawn to the King of Rock n’ Roll. 

“Elvis” would be nothing without its star, Austin Butler. With the help of a movement coach, karate lessons, vocal training and endless performance footage, Butler captures the soul of the legend and rarely borders on caricature. If there’s one reason to watch “Elvis,” Butler is it. His performance of “Trouble” is raw and full of passion, and when I saw the film in a theater, the cinema-goers went almost as wild as the fictional 1950s audience.

As seen from the enthusiastic reactions of the public, “Elvis” is an entertaining film. Highlights include the frenetic pacing of the Las Vegas breakdown scenes, luminous performances of classics such as “That’s All Right” and “Trouble” and an exploration of the filming of the “’68 Comeback Special,” with a cameo by Stranger Things’ Dacre Montgomery. 

At 159 minutes, the movie runs long, but it still leaves you with the feeling that you are unfamiliar with its protagonist. Large portions of Elvis’s life are left unexplored, and there is a rather heavy emphasis on his exploitation by manager Tom Parker, portrayed unnervingly well by Tom Hanks.

My main issue with the film is its tendency to disguise or smooth over Elvis’s flaws. Namely, Luhrmann neglects to truly explore the disturbing relationship between Priscilla Wagner and Elvis. When the pair first met, Priscilla was 14 and a freshman in high school, while Elvis was 24 and in the army. In Luhrmann’s only scene devoted to the beginning of their relationship, Priscilla and Elvis are depicted as wholesome young lovers kissing sweetly in Elvis’s army abode. In reality, Elvis was known to give 14 year-old Priscilla prescription pills, tell her to wear heavier makeup and constantly cheat on her.  

Instead, Luhrmann focuses on the eventual devolution of their marriage, blaming it, for the most part, on Elvis’s cheating and increased prescription drug use. Unfortunately, he neglects to mention crucial facts of Elvis’s personhood such as his reason for cheating on Priscilla — he was unwilling to have sex with a woman who had given birth — and the fact that he hired someone to kill the karate instructor with whom Priscilla had an affair. 

To portray his fictionalized version of Mrs. Presley, Luhrmann casts Olivia DeJonge, who recites her lines half-heartedly. Compared to her work in “The Society,” DeJonge does not seem to have much of an emotional connection to her character, leaving her acting flat and almost boring. This is somewhat understandable, as most of the dialogue given to what should be one of the most important members of the story is banal and gives little information about the character or her desires.

One has to wonder what else Luhrmann left out about Elvis in favor of a more sparkling canvas. Elvis’s use of African American gospel music is seen as a triumph in the film, a way for songs that deserved to be heard to finally make it onto the mainstream radio waves. However, Luhrmann’s view of history seems simplistic at best. Were the Black artists who Elvis appropriated music from really so pleased that he used their talent to achieve personal glory, while they remained relegated to specific soul or gospel radio stations for years to come?

Ultimately, the film leaves large portions of Elvis’s life unexplored or flattened down into minute-long scenes, giving one the sense that they are missing out on the full, and possibly more disturbing, story. The performances and Butler’s transformation may make up for these flaws, but Luhrmann, as he does in many of his movies, relies too heavily upon a beautiful picture and a strong soundtrack to compensate for the lack of fleshed-out characters and nuanced storytelling.

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