Baz Luhrmann Is Giving Us a Good, Clean Elvis for the 21st Century

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis tries to sell audiences on a sanitized version of the King, missing the much weirder, wilder, and messier truth of his life and career.

Still of Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

Baz Luhrmann’s new film, Elvis, is a lurid, nutty, hysterically melodramatic film extravaganza, typical of the Australian writer-director-producer, whose expensive commercial spectacles include The Great Gatsby, Australia, and Moulin Rouge! At the moment, Elvis is doing pretty well at the American box office following the successes of Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion, causing much rejoicing in Hollywood after a rough couple of years. It’s also drawing older audience members, the ones largely written off by the American film industry, in startling numbers — 56 percent over age thirty-five, and an incredible 29 percent over age fifty-five.

Such numbers undercut the idea of Luhrmann’s biopic being designed primarily to appeal to younger generations, giving them a chance to get better acquainted with the legendary performer, in these less Presley-saturated times:

Billy Stallings, an expert on Elvis history, emphasized that the film is not for Elvis purists. Instead, it’s a way for younger audiences and people not familiar with Elvis to be introduced to the King of Rock and Roll. It’s a supersized, over-the-top look at Elvis’ life that stacks one grandiose moment on top of another. Its extravagance holds your attention, even if it’s at the cost of staying faithful to Elvis Presley’s true story.

This theory explains the enthusiastic cooperation of the Presley family, especially Elvis’s ex-wife Priscilla, who is executor of Elvis’s estate and cofounder and former chairwoman of Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that made the Presley mansion in Memphis, Graceland into a highly profitable attraction. It can’t help but remind us that somebody’s got to keep those Graceland tourist dollars flowing in, along with all the other money to be made from selling Elvis music downloads and assorted Elvis merchandise.

In early May, over a month before the film’s official opening, Priscilla Presley attended the Met Gala to plug the upcoming film, alternately on the arms of Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler, the young actor who’s getting fabulous notices playing the title role in Elvis. And her gushing reaction to the movie, as well as those of her and Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, and granddaughter Riley Keogh, have been widely reported.

According to Priscilla Presley,

“It was very emotional, my daughter [Lisa Marie Presley] felt the same way,” she said. “Only because he got Elvis to a T, I mean to a T. It is unbelievable what this kid did, Austin Butler. He spent two years studying about Elvis, so that was like a shock to watch. Even some of the songs. [A talent manager who worked with Elvis] Jerry Schilling sat next to me, we had a private screening, and I said, ‘Is that Elvis or is that Austin?’”

Like most biopics, the appeal of Elvis rests on two factors: how compellingly the main actor can impersonate the subject of the film in terms of the way the current culture prefers to see them, and how dramatically but conventionally the complicated — often wild and disturbing — life story can be turned into a straightforward narrative that hammers home an idea — too frequently simplistic and moralizing — of who the star actually was.

Compare, for example, the central ideas about Elvis Presley in John Carpenter’s 1979 television biopic Elvis. Carpenter’s features a terrifically convincing performance by a young Kurt Russell (in his first collaborations with Carpenter) that caught critics by surprise. The narrative is memorably framed by scenes of Elvis alone in his Las Vegas hotel room in almost the last year of life, wearing all black and garishly gold-framed sunglasses in a darkened room, literally talking to his own shadow projected on the wall next to him, as if the shadow were his own twin — Jesse, who died stillborn. Carpenter’s Elvis is a strange man — a loner, shadowed, always up against looming social forces, and churning with inner chaos.

In Luhrmann’s version, Elvis is a slightly profane angel of exquisite natural talent who’s a kind of musical Chosen One channeling the glorious traditions of black music. These are represented by the hotly sexual dancing in the juke joint where the boy Elvis first spies on Arthur Crudup Jr singing “That’s All Right, Mama,” and the black church that’s apparently across the street, rocking with exuberant gospel singing, where Elvis is ecstatically “saved” by the music. Of Elvis’s equal dedication to white “hillbilly music” as well as other burgeoning strands of American song, the film makes no mention.

The demon to Elvis’s angel is Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, as a grotesque old carny with a manner so creepy and predatory, he’s like the monster in a silent-era horror film. Hanks is fitted out with a fat suit and a pendulous fake nose and a ludicrous accent that identifies him as ostentatiously, evilly foreign, the very opposite of what the actual Colonel Tom Parker — Holland-born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk — actually achieved in living in the United States illegally and passing for decades as a native-born American and a Southerner.

It would’ve been so much more interesting to have had Hanks play the role straight, perhaps slightly padded and no more, talking in an ordinary voice, subverting his own increasingly smarmy hero-of-the-heartland star persona to play “the Colonel.” How much more convincing he’d have been, laughing that patented, self-deprecating Hanks laugh, calling himself “the Snowman” as the Colonel did, charming people by acknowledging his flimflamming deal-making abilities in the service of his only client, Elvis. And, when necessary, pulling out all the sentimental stops to keep Elvis under his thumb with purple Luhrmann dialogue like this: “We are the same, you and I. Two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity.” And then suddenly revealing the cold-eyed shark underneath the Colonel’s conman smiles, with threatened lawsuits demanding millions Elvis couldn’t pay. Hanks would’ve been perfect for it. But that wouldn’t have been a Baz Luhrmann character.

Anyway, the Colonel latches onto Elvis Presley as potentially “the greatest carnival show of all time,” and from that point on, the same showdown is staged repeatedly in different locations and registers. Elvis tries to be true to his God-given talent and himself, to be “the real Elvis Presley,” and Colonel Tom Parker keeps entrapping him in increasingly oppressive, artificial, demeaning commercial performances that satisfy racists and censors and squares, and keep the money rolling in.

Once this melodramatic battle of light vs. darkness is established, no scenario is too absurd for Luhrmann to restage it again. Elvis is shown to be so musically brilliant, he keeps finding ways to work around Parker’s relentless, tawdry commercial drive, such as when he demonstrates the “bigger sound” he’s devised to salvage his initial Las Vegas gig. We see Elvis arranging on the spot a complex arrangement of one of his hugely orchestrated anthem-like Vegas-era songs. It’s one of those scenes you’ve seen many times before, in which the musical genius improvises to the brass section, “Now you go wah-wah-wah,” and to the percussion people, “Now you go dappity dappity dap,” and so on, till the whole marvelous arrangement comes together in five minutes as if by magic.

Tom Hanks playing Colonel Tom Parker with Austin Butler as Elvis. (Warner Bros.)

Thus Elvis preserves his authentic genius even as he adopts the sequined jumpsuits and gets “caught in a trap” set by the Colonel. “We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out” is the opening line of one of Elvis’s late, great hits, “Suspicious Minds,” so it plays over and over in the most literal-minded way in the third act of the film devoted to Elvis’s Vegas years, when Parker signed deals that kept the increasingly desperate, drug-addicted, and justifiably paranoid singer stuck in the International Hotel where he both lived and performed.

Well-known, central events and aspects of Elvis’s life are eradicated or glossed over if they don’t reinforce the melodramatic opposition of the central characters. Parker was well aware that Elvis’s molten sexuality was driving his popularity, and had no intention of switching it off, just channeling it in different ways. But in the film, he’s forever trying to force Elvis into a sexless, sanitized straitjacket of some kind. The long, ludicrous sequence in which Parker oversees a gigantic television production of an Elvis Christmas special, only to have Elvis order the cameras turned around at the last second, away from the elaborate happy-holidays set full of actors costumed as elves, toward him singing an intense solo of “If I Can Dream” in honor of the just-assassinated RFK, will haunt me for months. How stupid does Luhrmann think audiences are? Who could believe such an absurdity was possible in the world of ultra-expensive and labor-and-equipment-intensive television production?

Luhrmann never stages Elvis’s landmark appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the ultimate showcase for new talent in the 1950s and ’60s, the appearance that made Elvis a huge national star before the broadcast was even over. Sullivan was a notoriously old-fashioned, Irish-American Catholic straight arrow, and the mandate was that Elvis could only appear if he did the most G-rated performance of his life. He sang the romantic ballad “Love Me Tender,” which generated so much demand, the records could hardly be manufactured fast enough to satisfy the public. It was an easy solution to a brief hiccup in the career juggernaut of Elvis Presley, but that doesn’t fit Luhrmann’s cinematic argument.

And Elvis’s more famous “sins” are ridiculously glossed over in a narrative in which he’s forever presented as the innocent victim of the true sinner, Colonel Tom Parker. His romance with his wife, Priscilla, which began when she was fourteen years old, is made much more respectable by casting a twenty-four-year-old actor, Olivia DeJonge, who — even in pigtails and a schoolgirl outfit — looks at least eighteen. Elvis’s famously rampant sex life is represented by one instance of cheating on Priscilla with an anonymous woman in a hotel room and only when he’s falling apart at the end of his life. His drug use is limited to a few popped pills and injections, when in reality Elvis was known as a walking pharmacy, traveling with suitcases loaded with drugs, dependent on a terrifyingly lethal daily cocktail of illegal substances.

The weirdest part of these choices is, Luhrmann’s whole filmmaking sensibility is inclined toward shiny, lurid, over-the-top, sinner-man Hollywood and Vegas Elvis. The opening of the film features sequined and rhinestoned credits that seem to indicate Luhrmann is going to bust up the old dichotomy of “real” vs. “fake” Elvis through a celebration of showbiz Elvis across the boards — the Elvis of country fairs and family sing-alongs, geeky carnivals and gospel choirs, lowdown honky-tonks and grainy live television, hilariously silly movies and musicals, and Las Vegas showmanship, all on a continuum. Elvis was no pure-talent angel, he was an electrifying incarnation of American showbiz, drawing all the exhilarating and decadent strands together. But Luhrmann’s got a simplified hobbyhorse to ride, and he rides it.

As far as the embarrassing tendency of the film to make Elvis some kind of liberal-dream friend of the black community — yikes. It’s so clearly an attempt to address Elvis’s controversial standing as the hugely successful singer who most profited from making early black rhythm and blues/rock-and-roll music acceptable to white audiences, by making him “sympathetic.” The friend of BB King! The frequenter of black clubs on Beale Street! The man who shies away from his “King of Rock and Roll” label and says Fats Waller really deserved it! Just look how upset Elvis is when MLK dies!

This kind of special pleading is just silly. Elvis is the singer who got marketed most successfully as someone who could “safely” transmit black music to white audiences in an insanely racist culture. At that time, it was going to be somebody, or many somebodies. But Luhrmann’s tendency is to largely ignore the systemic racism, which Elvis benefited from, however reluctantly, in order to celebrate Elvis as the personal-friend-to-the-black-performer. Scenes in Beale Street clubs feature Elvis admiring entertainers like Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) while she’s singing her landmark version of “Hound Dog.” But nothing in the film points out how little she made from the song — though it was her biggest hit, Thornton claimed it earned her only five hundred dollars — compared to the untold millions Elvis must have made from what became his longest-running number-one smash.

Luhrmann isn’t really interested in that kind of dollars-and-cents reality. He prefers the kind of numbers written dramatically on napkins at stage-side tables in Las Vegas by Colonel Tom Parker, which are the equivalent in this film to Dr Evil’s gloating demand in Austin Powers for “one millllllllion dollars.

I guess what I’m hinting at in my subtle way is that I’m pretty fed up with Baz Luhrmann movies. But I seem to be the only one. Elvis is hitting a sweet spot in its release that seems uncomfortably related to the other gigantic hits currently playing — Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion. All big, dumb, nostalgic spectacles for people who proudly announce how much they’ve been longing to go see a Hollywood popcorn movie that makes them think of absolutely nothing.

It’s one thing to announce it. That’s understandable. It’s another thing to be proud of it.