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Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” Reviewed

Baz Luhrmann is the 21st Centuries Ken Russel but with too much restrain. If you are going to do a Elvis Presley fantasia surely the only way to go is further and Baz -the man behind some of the worst fantasias you’ve ever seen, “The Great Gatsby” and the dreaded “Moulin Rouge” to name but two- takes on the greatest rock and roller of all time and seems to be looking at it from the wrong direction. What Luhrmann does is add Russell’s “The Music Lovers” to Russell’s “Lisztomania”, it’s a shame he didn’t go as far as Ken would have and still we occasionally get rewarded for our patience.

As performed by newcomer Austin Butler (in a career making performance) Elvis Presley was a moody blue motherfucker, a morose mommy’s boy who couldn’t handle fame. And that might be a part of the story but in just the two minutes of the real Elvis Presley tacked onto the end of Baz’s 160 minute behemoth that still failed to hit all the highlights, the joy Elvis brought with him blows Baz’s multi-guided missile of Presley-isms into the water. Presley was not the man Butler is acting. Whether dismissing his Hollywood years in a 60 second cavalcade or completely ignoring the height of artistry we saw during recording sessions throughout the 1970s in Nashville and Hollywood, Presley’s charitable acts, his physical bravery, his loyalty, Butler can’t get at Presley because Presley makes no sense. Yes, by 1976 the drugs had caught up with him but Elvis from 1968 – 1975 were among the most creative years in his entire life. If you take the album presentation out of Elvis’s albums and switch em to the recording sessions, the man was never better in the studio. This is entirely ignored so Baz can placate the whitewashed marriage and divorce. All the Presley meets BB King is untrue, even if Arthur Crudup seems more likely… But Baz Luhrmann misses the joy at the heart of Presley, the pure pleasure of creating rock and roll despite Austin’s bravado performance. Having Presley grow a political conscience belittles the man and what he was, there is no reason to change him for the woke police. Even Presley’s beloved mother isn’t given her due.

Meanwhile, the decision to make “Elvis” a twofer with Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker was absolutely terrible, Parker was pretty bad true, but Hanks can’t control the malignant Jiminy Cricket Parker as portrayed, he is evil and Hanks has never been worse. Every time Hanks shows, way, way, way too often, you wanna watch something else. It overstates Parker, which is nothing if not difficult, it’s as though they filmed Tolstoy’s life story as a series of book publishing negotiations. Priscilla Presley is an angelic presence that certainly seems like science fiction, remember she had a long term affair with Mike Stone while still married; not to judge her except why show Presley’s infidelity and not hers? Take a guess…

And yet, for all this, the early live performances are brilliant, early Elvis mesmerizing girls and women (and men) through the medium of television and also through the most thrilling moments, the early live performances are transformative and Baz doesn’t shirk his responsibility to show Elvis as a sex god and a hard rocker changing the world, these are the moments, reaching a zenith with an in your face “Trouble” from the “’68 Special”.

Presley seems impossible to capture, impossible to understand, and “Elvis” doesn’t , but from time to time they turn Presley into the ultimate fairground ride and you can climb right on, just not often enough.

Grade: C+

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