The ELVIS movie review you didn’t ask for: Despite telling myself I wasn’t going to see it, Sally Jo and I went to go see the new Baz Luhrmann Elvis biopic movie today. Here are my thoughts on this ambitious, expensive-looking movie, and just remember—I’m a singular person, these are merely my personal opinions.
I was surprised at how much I liked the movie. I went in the theater fully prepared to hate it. I am a huge, perhaps obsessive, fan of Elvis Presley’s music, and I was convinced that the film’s portrayal would be flawed. I was pleasantly surprised. I have argued for years that Elvis was a sympathetic character, as much a victim as he was a success (my rebuttal to those people who put Elvis down, make fun of him for getting fat, doing dumb things with his money, etc. has always been “Look, you take a poor hillbilly kid out of some housing projects in Memphis and give him millions of dollars with no guidance or proper legal advice—what do you THINK was gonna happen?”). I thought that the human portrayal of Elvis was very well done, you really felt sorry for him by the end of the movie, trapped in a lifestyle he could not leave like an animal trapped in a cage.
Austin Butler was freakishly good in the role, I thought. They couldn’t have found a better actor. I thought Tom Hanks role as Colonel Tom Parker was a bit unbelievable—the entire length of the movie I never actually saw Colonel Tom Parker, I just saw Tom Hanks wearing a fat suit—but I was happy that the Colonel was finally portrayed as the carnival show swindler and cheat that he really was. The screenplay was effective in that regard, and it was kind of a masterful angle on the Elvis story, told through the Colonel’s creepy, voyeuristic, uncaring voice. Oh, and my buddy Jon Flynn played Hank Snow’s bass player—you did good, Jon! That scene looked great—but all the 1950s scenes seemed very rushed, did anybody else think that? I know this was an editing choice by Baz Luhrmann, but these scenes were gorgeously filmed and look like they cost a LOT of money, and then they went by in 90 seconds with REALLY fast edits—so fast it made my head swim.
There were factual errors, to be sure. I could write a dissertation on the number of historical events they got wrong, or the incorrect guitars and minor prop failures. (Okay, I’ll list a couple for the guitar geeks—was that really a modern Kent Armstrong pickup on the end of the fretboard of that archtop guitar in the tent show revival scene? And was Jimmie Rodgers Snow really holding a Swedish-made Levin archtop guitar backstage at the Louisiana Hayride? TSK, TSK! FOR SHAME! I mean, somebody went to a lot of effort to get the other details right, it seems weird they let some of these other easy details slip through the continuity director/prop supervisor.) But honestly, this movie is a bit like a fairy tale, almost Disney-esque, in its treatment of Elvis’s life and career, so the factual errors didn’t really matter. They didn’t bother me.
The thing that drove me absolutely batshit mental about this movie is the same complaint that I had with Baz Luhrmann’s other films, especially The Great Gatsby. Look, I understand that he’s aiming for a mainstream audience, and I know he’s trying to make his movie about something old appeal to the people in today’s society, and today’s world. That’s a difficult task. But at the heart of a movie like ELVIS, it really is a movie about a person in history, and historical events. So why does literally EVERY SINGLE SONG IN THE MOVIE (save for Elvis’s actual performance of “Unchained Melody” at the tail end of the film) get chopped up into some modern mashup, with overdubbed big-sounding modern drums over the original song, or even worse—the original song gets morphed into some completely different modern dance track or hip-hop track. I mean, if you’re theoretically making a movie about a great singer who made great music, why not showcase WHY that music was great in the first place? At its worst, the movie portrays Elvis’s early music as silly and simplistic; at its very best, it portrays Elvis’s electric performances as a way to simply segue into some more modern music, because obviously in Baz Luhrmann’s mind or whoever else had input, nobody REALLY wants to hear those silly old Elvis songs, do they? In that regard, I think this movie is a colossal failure, and is a multi-million-dollar visual smorgasbord disguising the fact that the director actually despises what made Elvis great in the first place.
Like a Broadway director, Luhrmann focuses on Elvis’s pretty face, his sexual body gyrations, his appeal to women, and lots and lots and lots and lots of showbiz candy to assault the eyes and ears, and completely misses the point of what made the main character so great in the first place: HIS MUSIC. I’ve said for years that Elvis was the greatest white blues singer who ever lived, and a singer who (because of his pretty face and despite his massive success) was highly underrated, or at the very least his massive talent was never fully appreciated for what it was, taken separately from the rest of his huge fame and success. The movie never really lets us hear that greatness until the very end, when they show one of my favorite clips of all time: Elvis himself (not the character playing him in the film), shortly before he died, bloated, unhealthy looking, sweaty—singing a positively balls-out, full-throttle, perfectly on-point version of “Unchained Melody.”
I’ve often used that video clip as a litmus test for people—what do you see when you watch this clip? Some people can’t get over how bad Elvis looks, the once-King-of-Hollywood, the sexiest man alive at the ’68 Comeback Special, reduced to a pile o’ blubber in a polyester jumpsuit. Others hear that incredible voice, unique in its power, coming out, despite the man being at death’s door. I suppose that’s how audiences will divide themselves who watch this movie. You’re either dazzled by the visuals or there’s something in the music and performance that grabs you. I feel like Baz Luhrmann excelled greatly at the former and failed miserably at the latter. The modern dance beats and hip-hop tracks he laid in the soundtrack to make this movie appeal to 2022 audiences will seem stupid and dated to people watching this movie five or ten or twenty years from now; like the people who redid their houses in “Tuscan colors” ten years ago because that was the trend. Elvis’s music is timeless; the modern tracks inserted into the soundtrack in this film will be forgotten by November of this year. But that’s just my opinion. I really like Elvis’s music, and I think he was one of the greatest singers America ever had.
As an escapist piece of cinema for a Sunday afternoon matinee, told like a cinematic fairy tale, I enjoyed this film a lot. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you go, and form your own opinions. If anything, it felt weird and cool and strange and groovy to sit in a movie theater in 2022 watching strangers enjoy this film about one of my favorite artists of the 1950s and 1960s, who died before most of them were born. Maybe some of the young kids watching this film will go start a band like I did after watching The Buddy Holly Story. I certainly hope so. Off I go, to yell at some clouds.