Review: 'Elvis' gives little sense of the King of Rock 'n' Roll — it's barely about him
Wise men say only fools rush to make biopics.
The good news about "Elvis" — and there's not enough good news — is that "Moulin Rouge" writer/director Baz Luhrmann has not made a traditional biopic. His model seems to be Oliver Stone's "JFK," also a flashy, frenetic and not entirely factual movie about a man who became very famous in the middle of the 20th century. Like Stone, Luhrmann cuts the movie into non-chronological bits, with the camera swooshing all over the place, music blaring and each image — even newspaper photos — springing to noisy life.
Say this for "Elvis": It is never boring. But it also tells us virtually nothing about Presley. Luhrmann is so hell bent on hitting each highlight of Presley's music career (recording at Sun Records, TV appearances, controversy about suggestive dancing, Vegas residency, etc.) that "Elvis" feels more like a Wikipedia entry than a movie.
Luhrmann skips right past the King's movies — the period from 1956-68 zips by in less than five minutes — but, worse, he never gives us a sense of Elvis' life. We don't see him eating a sandwich or playing catch with daughter Lisa Marie (who barely pops up at all) or chatting up a friend, if he had any.
Weirdly, a more accurate title for "Elvis" would be "Parker." Austin Butler comes off as a decent imitator in the title role but the movie is dominated by Tom Hanks' "Colonel" Tom Parker, who "discovered"/exploited Elvis and is depicted as a malevolent conman. Parker narrates the movie, which opens in 1997, 20 years after its title character died at age 42. He skips back and forth in time, filling in details of his protege's speedy rise (including some that Parker wouldn't have been around for) but mostly dropping clues about the movie's big mystery: Who was Tom Parker (not his real name) and what was his hold on Elvis?
The movie doesn't have compelling answers to those questions, unfortunately. Parker mostly remains a cipher and his hold is depicted as a combo of drugs and vague hints about Elvis' insecurity. Hanks, at least, gives a compelling performance as a small-minded man who grasps for every crumb within reach.
In early trailers for "Elvis," the prosthetics used to suggest Parker's girth seemed to overwhelm Hanks, who appeared to be playing an evil walrus. Either the look was fixed in post-production or it's easier to get used to in the film because, in context, Parker's appearance is not a distraction from Hanks' entertainingly melodramatic performance, which makes me wonder what he'd be like as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
"Elvis" concludes with footage of the real, effortlessly charismatic Elvis Presley, who brings the movie alive in a way that seems unfair to Butler. Other than those clips, the only time we feel the thrill of musicians taking control of a room are in brief, magnetic performances by Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Alton Mason as Little Richard. How about big-screen biographies of those rock pioneers?