At this point, what is left to say about Elvis Presley? The man’s life and musical career have been exhaustively mined by his descendants, biographers, and fans who buy paintings of him on black velvet. Movies have avoided the King of Rock and Roll because he’s too big a subject. They prefer to address a slice of his life (Elvis and Nixon), create a fictional alter ego (The Identical), have him make a cameo appearance in someone else’s story (Walk the Line), or treat him as an icon of someone else’s imagination (True Romance). Baz Luhrmann, an Australian who works on a mythic scale, dares to take on the entire peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwich of Presley’s life. Maybe the grand opera treatment is the only way to go about this subject, but Elvis washed over me without much of an impact.
The story picks up in 1997, as an elderly Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) suffers a heart attack in his Las Vegas home. From his hospital bed, he narrates the story of how, as a carnival worker, he found this handsome young country-blues singer (Austin Butler) and became his sole manager, spiriting Elvis away from poverty in Mississippi and the stodgy county-fair circuit in the South to become a global icon. So what if I stole money from him, he asks us. So what if I thwarted his dreams of touring the world? I knew what was best for him.
Having Elvis’ life told through the self-serving prism of this con artist, a Dutchman born Andreas van Kuijk with no military record, is an interesting idea. Unfortunately, the main thing it does for the movie is turn Hanks into a grotesque puppet under mounds of prosthetic fat and wrinkles. There are actors who become better when they disappear like this. Hanks is not one of them. He works the Dutch accent within an inch of its life, but he lacks the snaky charm that might explain to us why the rock star of all rock stars might become emotionally dependent on this man.
Opposite him, Butler delivers a performance of remarkable physicality. You may not know this actor whose career stretches all the way back to the TV version of Hannah Montana. He’s absorbed the manner of Elvis’ movements on stage, whether it’s the young Elvis shaking like he’s been electrocuted or the older Elvis who’s reserving his energy but can still bring it or the bloated, sweat-soaked Elvis near the end of his life. He does some of the singing on the soundtrack, while other songs are original Elvis recordings, and I had a hard time telling the difference. Too bad he’s saddled with a script that depicts the King as a helpless pawn. That’s a hard role to make compelling, and Butler can’t pull off the trick.
The film’s 160 minutes go by in an almighty whoosh. Luhrmann directs frenetically as always, with visual integrity — go back over his films, and you’ll see there’s usually a reason for each of his myriad cuts. All his skill, though, can’t keep Elvis’ childhood in Tupelo from coming off like outtakes from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The story flies by so quickly that it barely has time to address things like Elvis’ place as a white man singing Black people’s songs or his desire to be a serious actor in the face of the cookie-cutter musicals that made up his filmography. We’re left with banal platitudes about how fame makes a person lonely or attracts people who were lonely to begin with. Elvis has the scale of an opera, but it never reaches the pitch of tragedy that makes an opera overwhelming. Say what you want to about him, the man who sang “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was a unique and magnetic phenomenon when he came on the scene. The movie that bears his name feels all too ordinary.
Starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, and Craig Pearce. Rated PG-13.
Bubba Ho-Tep is the best treatment of Elvis.