An entertainer as big and excessive as Elvis Presley deserves a biopic to match. And filmmakers don't get much bigger or more excessive than Baz Luhrmann. Unfortunately, this big screen take on the King is both too much and not enough.
Cradle-to-grave biopics rarely get their subjects right, with too little time focusing on what made them so special and worthy of an entire film in the first place. Elvis falls into this trap early, but at least tries to offer some variation by offering flashbacks within flashbacks. Yet its visual style flies from one shiny object to the next, making the nearly three-hour epic exhausting from the jump.
Despite being titled Elvis, the film is told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Presley's notorious manager never met an object he couldn't merchandise or a contract he couldn't exploit for his own financial gain. Unfortunately, this is a rare bad Hanks performance. The fat suit and Dutch accent may be accurate, but it's so over-the-top that he's not even a compelling villain.
It's a different story with Austin Butler, who last made a memorable impression as would-be killer Tex in Once upon a Time in Hollywood. He's absolutely electrifying as the poor Memphis truck driver who became the biggest singer and movie star in the world. He's the only one playing a real character. Everyone else is a mere sketch or full-on caricature.
Ironically, the movie is hobbled by its maximalism. It's the only mode Luhrmann knows, but a more pared-down approach would have served this particular story better. It's no surprise the movie is at its best when Elvis is crushing it on-stage, whether he's rehearsing or performing. When he's not doing something musical, the movie grinds to a halt.
Its lengthiest and best section zooms in on Elvis' widely lauded '68 Comeback Special. The script adds some phony conflict between Presley, Parker and the show's sponsor. But it's otherwise dynamite, seeing Presley back in command after a run of cheap, interchangeable movies. Working with a new producer and director, he's rejuvenated.
Alas, this joy doesn't last long, for Elvis or the audience. Itching for a world tour, he's instead roped into a lengthy run in Las Vegas. With a blank check for his initial performances, he gets the back-up band of his dreams. (There's a great sequence where he rearranges an older hit on the fly.) But the nightly grind wears him (and us) out, and like the film, he becomes a bloated mess. The only restraint Luhrmann shows the entire film is not including a scene where Elvis dies of a heart attack on the toilet.
It's a bummer because the film wastes a fantastic lead performance. It's somewhere in this jarring blend of bad perspective, unnecessary remixes and ugly CGI.