Despite flair and a gallant effort from Austin Butler, Elvis gets trapped in a standard rock biopic rut

click to enlarge Despite flair and a gallant effort from Austin Butler, Elvis gets trapped in a standard rock biopic rut
For I can't help not falling in love with Elvis.

A biopic first announced in 2014, Baz Luhrmann's Elvis sees the distinctive director (Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet) returning to the big screen with mixed results. Starring the relatively unknown actor Austin Butler as the electric Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks as his conniving manager Colonel Tom Parker, it is at its best when Luhrmann's cinematic eccentricities are let loose and he leans into the raucous performances. Regrettably, the experience overall becomes far less than the sum of its parts. The King's hips can't wiggle their way out of the wearisome way the story, one that becomes a checklist version of the musician's life as opposed to the comprehensive character study it should've been.

There is still a lot to admire about the parts of the whole. Butler in particular is quite good in the onstage performances as well as the character-driven scenes, like one in the shadow of a decrepit Hollywood sign. He delicately captures a character who was both an incredible performer and a troubled person offstage. As the film tracks his spiral into darkness, it forms the emotional center that one can almost get swept up in. What holds the viewer back is how the film falls into being a little too close to hagiography, glossing over many of the more complicated aspects of the man behind the music. It still works as a star-making turn for Butler, who emerges as a bright spot despite the persistent attempt to smother him underneath the many tiresome excesses.

What isn't as compelling is almost everything with Hanks. He makes use of an exaggerated accent that we're meant to believe is Dutch, though it's really anyone's guess. Hanks gives the performative equivalent of rolling headfirst down a cliff, lacking control while somehow hitting every tree, bush and rock on the way down before coming to rest in a messy heap. It can't be called an impersonation as it is so exaggerated and unsteady that it shifts into being distracting. We get that Parker is a sinister snake-oil salesman. What makes it hard to swallow is the performance itself is synthetic, lacking anything beyond its superficial and strange choices that are never convincing. While acting under garish prosthetics does Hanks no favors, it is the decisions he makes as an actor that turn it into one of his worst performances. It is misguided from the very start and gets worse from there, crying out for more of a subtle touch.

Of course, one doesn't go to a Luhrmann film expecting subtlety. The director always swings for the fences. His last film, 2013's abysmal The Great Gatsby adaptation, was sporadically interesting though ultimately hollow. Elvis runs into many of the same problems while also creating a whole host of new ones, ensuring there is an abundance of noise that drowns out anything engaging. Luhrmann (who co-wrote the script) takes enough material for what could be five different biopics which he then attempts to jam into one feature with tropes bursting out of the seams of its overstuffed narrative. It is a fascinating experiment in theory, though it becomes a meandering mess in practice. Clichés abound as it never is able to find a sense of nuance in a story that desperately needs it.

While the life of the titular musician did go off the rails, the way it is all played here is far too constrained by the conventions of the biopic. It is oddly safe, smoothing over any wrinkles that could have offered more insights into the story. A key example is when we meet the iconic bluesman B.B. King, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who is a strong musical performer in his own right, as witnessed in the sublime Cyrano). His character is reduced to providing wisdom to Presley before he disappears as the story thrusts ahead to the list of other plot points it wants to hit.

Instead of a few montages sprinkled throughout the movie, there's a bombardment of them that becomes an overdrive of exposition. It hits all the big notes of Presley's life with such speed that it washes over the texture of it all. It is all rote and rushed to the point of being shallow. Despite covering one of the most impactful and enduring artists of all time, Elvis will be remembered as a biopic with flair that still got caught in its own trap of tedium. ♦

One and a Half Stars ELVIS
Rated PG-13
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks

Backcountry Film Festival @ Garland Theater

Thu., Nov. 30, 6-9 p.m.
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