Most biopics end with the deaths of their protagonists. But Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis starts on a deathbed — not of Elvis (Austin Butler) but his controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Rubbishing a book on his life by a “muckraker”, Parker addresses the audience, intending to rectify the falsehoods about him. This biopic then isn’t a straightforward account of the rock and roll star but one filtered through his manager’s point of view. We hear him before Elvis, see him before Elvis. Parker is present even when he’s not, in the form of a voiceover – like a concerned father monitoring his son.
Or, more accurately, this is less of a biopic and more of a love story – a marriage story. A marriage that, even four decades later, is remembered less for the romance and more for the alimony. But before all the dark stuff, there’s young Elvis, the mad Elvis, a jewel waiting to be discovered. Beginning his career as a carnival worker, Parker ended up finding not just an artist but the carnival itself. Elvis to the world, “my boy” to Parker.
Even though the movie starts with Parker, it’s impossible to out-Elvis Elvis. So, in no time, the rockstar towers over the film. We see his childhood – how he got inspired by African-American music – then his initial days as a performer and his relationship with his parents. Music is a key component of this film and, in the initial segment, Luhrmann goes nuts on his home turf.
Mandy Walker’s camera is nearly never static. When the stakes are high, it darts forward to frame the characters up close. The quick editing style – many cuts average less than two seconds – mimics the feel of a heady crowd surf. Elsewhere the transitions are deliciously theatrical – a match cut turns a Ferris wheel into a phonograph record; disoriented dissolves underscore the pathos; animated sequences segue into live-action ones and vice-versa. Elvis’ first hour is a thing of its own – drenched in so much fun that it can’t be bothered about anything else. It’s uninhibited enough to zoom in on Elvis’ crotch a few times during his live performances. It’s assured enough to pull off a Kane-like coup (a flashback-in-a-flashback). Luhrmann takes the stuffy Hollywood biopic template – #OscarBait – and sets it free.
This style befits the rambunctious and maximalist Elvis. It also illuminates the world around him. At the start of the film, a sharp juxtaposition contrasts the laid-back country music with pelvis-thrusting rock and roll. This bipolarity marked Elvis in other crucial ways, too, for he was a Southern “white boy” who sang “like a negro”. It extends to the very definition of ‘good music’: the smooth gentlemen deriding the boys doing “lewd gyrations”. It exposes America’s original sin – the racist senators accuse Elvis of “bringing down the country to the level of negroes”.
But at least one more trait makes these portions remarkable: a sense of irresistible madness tying the spectators and the spectacle. Luhrmann takes evident delight in capturing the frenzy of Elvis’ audiences – mostly young women – topped off by dramatic lines. How about this: We see a young conservative woman watch Elvis perform – her facial expressions a mix of ecstasy, confusion and dread. And then we hear this in the background: “She was having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy.”
Then there’s the performer himself: a young boy in a Black church singing a communal hymn, staring at the ceiling, absolutely lost – the portrait is not that of a child awakened but a child possessed, who brought the same madness to his music. A filmmaker known for dramatic lunges, Luhrmann gets this intensity and insanity, and he brings his A-game to the party. His is a style that doesn’t work at all times (or for everyone), but when it lands, it blows.
Elvis works till the point it’s about Elvis. It’s the Parker angle that’s the problem. Nothing wrong with Hanks’ performance though. In fact, it was so effective that, unbeknown to me, by the climax, I ended up developing a low-key distaste for him (not unlike some of my own uncles who, like Parker, have prioritised money over art their entire lives).
Luhrmann sets himself a gargantuan challenge at the start of the film, promising an insider’s peek into a celebrity-manager relationship. Which is simply not the case. The director’s take aligns with the conventional opinions on Parker (already well documented in court records, interviews and books – remember the manager wanting to debunk a muckraker’s claims in the first scene?). The film’s framing device then seems disingenuous and hollow, creating an anticipation for a reveal that never materialises.
Luhrmann struggles to depict the evolving relationship between the two men. The movie loses its focus after a point, splitting into different versions: there’s an Elvis film, an Elvis-Parker film, and a Parker film. When it concentrates on Elvis, Parker shrinks into the background. But sometimes it’s unable to focus on Elvis, too. His career from the late ’50s to the late ’60s for example – where he aimed to conquer Hollywood – gets over in a few minutes. For someone unfamiliar with the details of his life, I felt lost. And then came a clunky expositional dialogue: Elvis asking, “Where’s my career right now?”
Those ten years also deprive us of the Elvis-Parker bond. Surely, a lot would have happened. It was, after all, a period where Elvis got married (a wedding that, by many accounts, was orchestrated by Parker to “tame Elvis”). A movie like this, centred on a disintegrating relationship, should attempt to make some sense of that disintegration itself – especially when it happened slowly over two decades. But Luhrmann treats it in dramatic heaps, where we get booming disgruntled statements by Parker (“the know-it-all hippies had brainwashed him”) exacerbated by his ever-escalating greed, painted in broad strokes, that almost makes him a stereotype.
We get little insight into Parker’s mindscape, too. In fact, his gambling problem – an addiction that haunted him for decades – comes way too late in the film. The movie drops hints about his shadowy past around the halfway mark – such as his fake name and dubious military record – as if the makers have gotten access to some undisclosed files, but there too, they’ve nothing more than what’s already available on his Wikipedia page.
Similarly, a few crucial bits about Elvis come to the fore after they’ve impacted him (his drug-addled persona ruining his marriage, his spendthrift nature depleting his savings, his father emerging as vain and callous). Despite the uneven writing, Butler shines as the leading man, donning easy charm and magnetic verve. He only falters towards the end, trying to embrace Elvis’ anger and betrayal.
There are several movies clamouring for attention here, and Luhrmann often seems undecided. At one point, we hear, “Who are you, Elvis?” The same can be asked of the filmmaker: What is Elvis? The singer does not have the answer to that question – neither does the filmmaker.
This article was first published on The Wire.