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The Suffocating Excess of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’

The new biopic of the King does what’s totally unnecessary: clumsily bury the legend of Elvis under devices and metaphors

Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The final story in the last book Denis Johnson completed during his lifetime is called “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” It’s about a professor of poetry whose star pupil, it emerges over their decades of friendship, is consumed by a conspiracy theory: that Elvis Presley was murdered in 1958 by his domineering manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and replaced by the twin brother who was said to have been stillborn, but was, the poet believes, taken by a midwife who raised him as her own. It was this twin, the poet goes to great expense and ghoulish measures to prove, who shaved his sideburns and entered the Army, who married Priscilla Beaulieu and fell into a rut of middling Hollywood films, who mounted a comeback and became consumed by drug addiction before dying in 1977 at 42.

If the professor does not share his former student’s conviction (“I discount his theory,” he says after the latter has exhumed the grave of an infant stillborn almost 70 years prior, “but I value the obsession”), he recognizes that it is at least semiotically true. The Elvis who came home from the 3rd Armored Division grew sweatier, flabbier, simultaneously messy and stale; he gestured, with increasing desperation, at the cool he had channeled without effort in his youth. This descent could be explained as the normal arc of aging, or of popular culture, but was so extreme that you can hardly blame an observer for seeing something darker animating it. While the men in Johnson’s story have differing appetites for the occult, they agree that Parker precipitated the collapse. “He wanted to assert his identity as Evil’s prefect, Evil’s provincial mayor,” the poet says of Parker, “and his province was the Province of Mediocrity.”

In Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Parker is played by Tom Hanks in a fat suit and with a muddled Dutch accent and is, like much of the film around him, so goofily rendered as to be totally unthreatening—he could be the villain in a movie whose hero is a talking dog. Elvis is presented as the reflection of a dying Parker, who narrates in intermittent voice-over. But this unreliable deathbed confession is just one of many devices and motifs Luhrmann deploys in an attempt to frame Elvis. The sheer number of them is baffling: the world as a casino that pays out until it doesn’t (Parker shuffles around a dreamlike one similar to the real International Hotel in which he cocooned his client); the music industry as an extension of the carnival (where Parker cut his promotional teeth); Elvis as comic book hero (there is an animated sequence to this end, and the artist and manager bond over it).

Elvis is so overstuffed with these organizing ideas that it often feels like a brainstorming session. What it fails to understand is that Elvis Presley does not need to be, and perhaps can’t be, explained through metaphor. He’s an irreducible American myth, and the pillars of his career—the smuggling of sex into a repressed environment, the adoring but diluted translation of Black music, the reflex for excess, the fealty to business interests—are core tenets of our pop culture across the past half-century. Luhrmann’s take on him is so distracted and distracting that it ends up diminishing both the human drama in Elvis’s life and the ripple effect he had on the outside world.

None of which is to argue that this, or any biopic, should be told dryly or literally. But Luhrmann’s particular brand of maximalism has curdled into something tedious and predictable, a litany of tics to rattle off out of obligation. The housing projects of Elvis’s youth are implausibly clean, but not to a degree that scans as conscious style; the segmenting of a single frame to include two or three camera angles ignores Elvis’s—and Austin Butler’s, who stars as the singer—preternatural ability to dominate a single one. Toward the end of the first act, one of the people I saw Elvis with leaned over and asked: “Is this all a montage?”

This freneticism infects everything, including the frequently exhausting script. It has standard biopic schlock: “I’m your wife!” his wife shouts during a scene about their marriage; shortly after Parker is given a cocktail-napkin contract that promises to relieve his gambling debts in exchange for his keeping Elvis tied to the International against his will and financial interests, he embraces the singer, his emotional crossroads underlined by a close-up shot of the napkin, which he stares at over Elvis’s shoulder. But the script’s itchiness makes it even more heavy-handed in other sequences. The famous 1956 Russwood Park performance, which Elvis used to redeem himself after an embarrassingly neutered appearance on The Steve Allen Show, is intercut with a segregationist rally held in Memphis that same night by Mississippi senator James Eastland. This would not be altogether unusual in a historical drama, but when Eastland’s speech is laid over Elvis staring at his segregated crowd, the obviousness becomes insulting—and saps the Russwood scene of any thematic power it would otherwise have.

Here and elsewhere, Elvis suffocates a truly great performance by Butler. The veteran of Disney and Nickelodeon series, who more recently played Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, is especially adept at channeling the younger Elvis, a nervy ball of insecurity and raw id. Butler is so good that he sometimes takes the viewer out of the movie, seeming to come alive in ways not called for or supported by the scene. In effect, the film’s dramatic centerpiece, an ahistorical version of the 1968 comeback special that aired on NBC, becomes a microcosm of Elvis itself, its star asserting his presence despite the corporate interference that threatens to dampen it.

Butler is at his best when he plays against the limits of Elvis’s intelligence, or at least the limits of his sophistication. In a scene late in the movie, he visits Parker in a hospital room, planning to fire his manager for good. But when presented with a business proposition that is at best mildly enticing, doubt creeps across Elvis’s face: Butler plays personal guilt and ugly ambition in equal measure, his Elvis a gentle person saddled with insatiable appetites. He’s as entrancing—and entranced—during earlier sequences in Memphis, when he steals away from Graceland to sit in clubs and listen to the Black musicians from whom he frequently borrowed. These scenes have a distinct texture, the diegetic music excellent and the clubs themselves recognizable ecosystems, not the caricatures common to similar movies. (This is despite Luhrmann’s best efforts to undercut it: The Beale Street scenes are dotted with hip-hop songs so out of place that they make, to reference another Tarantino picture, the Rick Ross record in Django Unchained seem period appropriate.)

Elvis is nominally interested in the role race had in its subject’s rise, but needlessly Pollyannaish about it. (Elvis includes a scene in which the star, on the night Martin Luther King Jr. is shot, looks wistfully at a television set and says, “Dr. King … he always spoke the truth,” a moment made no less clumsy by the fact that this is something the real Elvis supposedly said.) Luhrmann and Butler portray Elvis as fundamentally decent, never calculated or craven in the way he lifts from his adopted hometown’s blues scene. This is perfectly fine, as is the fact that there are no scenes of explicit conflict over authorship or appropriation—imagine how broad those would inevitably be. What becomes tiresome is that in a movie where Elvis is occasionally spoken about as a pioneer of integration, his meaningful interactions with Black people are mostly included to show them giving him their unreserved support, like when B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) dispenses some helpful business advice on a fire escape, then disappears from the film.

But this gets at the movie’s most provocative, if perhaps unintentional, idea: that in many cases, popular artists are imperfectly translating the fleeting moments of transcendence that they, like the rest of us, might be lucky to glimpse. This could be a particularly overwhelming performance by an Arthur Crudup or a Willie Mae Thornton; it could be the Baptist revival tent that a young Elvis wanders into, its rhythmic bursts of spiritual ecstasy mesmerizing him, then mapping neatly onto the dance moves he’d bring to stages throughout the South—which would in turn inspire fits of sexual awakening in young women who, from a distance, were indistinguishable from those tentgoers moved by the holy spirit. Though Elvis does its best to bury it under layers of self-conscious excess—just as Parker tried, maybe successfully, to bring his client to heel—there existed in Elvis a performative brilliance that was suppressible only through the most supernatural efforts.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.