Elvis Can’t Escape a Restrictive Framing Device
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis takes a look at the life of the King of Rock and Roll through the eyes of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Taking a unique approach to one of the most influential pop culture icons, Baz Luhrmann has never had a more interesting framing device than he does with Elvis. A director known for his decadence and hyper-stylized presentation of even the most mundane actions, nothing is left on the table with his latest film, but it’s also a tiring experience that switches gears and loses everything that made it interesting in the process. Save for Austin Butler’s tremendous performance as the titular “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis starts off with a bang and refuses to let up until the superstar and its narrative are both caught in a trap that they can’t get out.
Focused primarily on Elvis Presley (Butler) from the moment he crossed paths with Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) to his untimely death, Luhrmann holds nothing back in presenting Elvis not just as a showman – but as a force to be reckoned with. A definitive example of pop culture being targeted by government organizations in order to control what exactly makes its way to the masses, the first half of Elvis frequently flirts with Presley’s power as someone who bridges gaps that very Conservative individuals did not want to be bridged. It seems like a movie with a lot on its mind and Luhrmann’s inability to relax when he’s realized the potential for extravagant storytelling has never been more obvious than here. Comparisons to other modern examples of maximalist cinema such as the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer are not far off.
The difference here is that Elvis – just as he does in his life – takes a detour. He skirts past the controversy, pares down his rockstar persona for something more Hollywood. Frequently wishing to be as good as James Dean, the film removes all the sensationalism surrounding him and turns Presley into a person forced to change and repress what he truly loves. It’s a fascinating concept that allows Butler’s performance to be more nuanced where past hopes and dreams serve as open wounds, occasionally festering.
However great the idea is, the execution is tragically boring. The film is framed around the financial abuse that Presley suffered at the hands of Col. Tom Parker and therefore the entire film sees his character tell the story the way he sees it. There are frequent moments where he remarks “You may have believed…” implying a consciousness of public opinion on Parker and Presley, but the film itself – especially once it settles into its final half – does not behave as if its narrator knows any more than his character presents.
Instead, Elvis focuses on Parker as “the snowman” (nicknamed after his own imaginary private club named The Snowmen’s League of America) and his ability to manipulate Presley throughout his career. His background unknown, Parker is presented largely as a parasite, but one that winds up mutually beneficial for Presley. He’s often shown as capable of looking out for himself, which in turn means keeping his lucky charm happy and successful. To watch Hanks embody the role of a corrupt, selfish, degenerate gambler is somewhat compelling since it’s not a character he plays often, but unfortunately, it’s also not the film’s strongest element. And yet, it’s the one that the movie hangs its hat on.
Right down to its presentation, Elvis is all about Parker as a man from a carnival creating the greatest show the world has ever seen. Much like Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, every ounce of the film is justifiably excessive from the get-go. There are few that manage to marry character and presentation as well as Luhrmann and here is no exception. It feels like a carnival ride until it eventually comes down to Earth.
When the film settles down from its high-energy first half, it screeches to a halt – narratively and pacing-wise. Gone is the film’s decadence and in exchange Luhrmann tries to tell a story of someone being dealt a bad hand without even knowing it. With Parker pulling the strings, Luhrmann presents him as extremely one-dimensional. He’s evil right from the beginning and it exemplifies the director’s refusal to paint with a smaller brush. Hanks’ accent of unknown origin is grating and distracting as the movie tries to wind down with an emotional swing that never quite lands.
What does land though is Butler’s performance amidst Luhrmann’s penchant for excess. Embodying the character of Elvis Presley is one thing, but to mesh with the gaudiness of Elvis as well as its somber moments is a herculean task that shows Butler as a star far more capable than he’s been given credit. Elvis serves as a beacon for his career. Each musical number and set piece is confronted with confidence and exuberance: two must-have traits to lead a Baz Luhrmann film.
To say a Baz Luhrmann film is uneven and excessive is perhaps a bit old hat at this point. He hides his failings as a writer better than most and there’s hardly a film in his filmography I’d hesitate watching again. That being said, Elvis is too long for its own good and even with the amount of themes both political and social that Luhrmann obviously has on his mind throughout the film, he tosses a lot of them out of the window halfway through the film. Narratively, his decisions almost all make sense, especially given that the film is told from Parker’s perspective as opposed to telling a traditional biopic.
The problem with Elvis is that for all its interesting ideas that it appears to contain within itself, its framing device strangles the life from the film and restricts it to being what it’s trying to shirk: the traditional tragic story of a man consumed by fame and fortune. It paints a singular villain, but the broad strokes are still there and no matter how pointed Luhrmann’s direction can get, it’s never enough to shake a very rote presentation of a very well-worn area. Juxtaposed against the first half where it seems to know no bounds, it’s even more damning as Luhrmann being a better showman than a storyteller.