I don’t know a lot about Elvis Presley, but I’ve read enough to know that most of Baz Luhrmann’s film is distorted, if not outright fictional. It doesn’t matter, because Elvis is a near-inconsequential figure, perhaps proven by the fact that this movie is more about Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in a fat suit) than poor, boring Elvis. Maybe Luhrmann got bored as well. I can’t say I blame him.
Watching this picture, strangely, I was reminded of Ronald Reagan. He too was a mythic, iconic figure with worshipping acolytes. And as his career wound down and he lapsed into senility, a writer, Edmund Morris, sought to pen the definitive Reagan biography. Morris, however, was stymied by what he perceived as Reagan’s banality, his simplicity, and so, for the book, was forced to invent an American-born Edmund Morris, who as Reagan’s contemporary followed “Dutch” from his near-poverty childhood to Hollywood to the presidency. Here, it feels like Luhrmann realized that Elvis is a dud, so he re-created Parker as Elvis’ dark half, the grotesque sidekick who can provide insight into a wisp. It’s a game effort, but it fails.
While the picture is admittedly visually arresting, you soon realize several things.
- It’s not so much a movie as a series of trailers stitched together. Eye-popping vignettes that, for a time, divert you from the tropes and the utter lack of any character development.
- The picture is about 45 minutes too long and repeats the same scene, over and over again. Elvis is an impossibly beautiful, mesmerizing near-wax doll with swiveling hips. He is wooed by wily carnival barker Parker. Elvis gets famous. Then Parker reminds Elvis that it’s all about the money. Elvis occasionally strays out of his lane. Parker reminds him, again, that it’s all about the money. Elvis quickly gets back in line to keep the money flowing in. Then he strays again, modestly. Parker reminds him that it’s all about the money. And then Elvis does the financially sound thing, but soon, he’s bucking just a bit. Parker reels his boy back in, time after time, and when things are at their most dicey, the Colonel says, “we are the same, Elvis, you and I” (an actual awful line). And Elvis gets back to doing what he does best, making and spending fat stacks of cash.
- Luhrmann tries to sell Elvis as a tragic figure who was killed by his overwhelming love for his fans, rather than his affinity for the cash to keep him in deep fried hollowed out loaves of Italian bread stuffed with bananas, bacon and peanut butter.
- Just as Austin Powers buried the super-campy version of James Bond, I thought Dewey Cox buried this kind of hackneyed testament. Not so.
Biopics often fall into the same traps. Hagiography, over-dramatization of mundane events, ridiculous suggestion of significant social impact.
But rarely do they present dullards as their subjects. Here, when you strip away all the glitz, all the quick cuts, all the visual tricks in Luhrmann’s bag, you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that Elvis Presley was a dummy, and that he was manipulated by no Svengali, but rather, someone just a little bit smarter than The King.