with Austin Butler and Tom Hanks
When I was a teen and began following pop music, Elvis was already a has been and in my eyes, someone who tried too hard when he performed. I was used to the cool swagger of Mick Jagger and the practiced harmonies of the Beatles. Elvis was not hip any more. No matter how much he swayed his hips. Elvis the movie allows us to look back, and understand the historical significance of his music. I realize what a snob I was to ignore his brilliant performance style.
The movie succeeds with the selection of his tunes, the influence of black music. The appeal of the singer, the quality of his songs and performances keeps you rooted to your seat. But then Tom Hanks shows up with his fake accent and puffed out visage and the movie loses its momentum. I can’t tell if Hanks is simply miscast, or if his performance is a colossal failure or a combination of both. Whatever it is, Luhrmann revels in it and sinks the movie.
What does work in the movie are the songs, the costumes, the sets, and production values, and especially the performances by black musicians.
What a pleasure it is to hear Little Richard sing the whole song, Tutti Frutti, in its entirety. To hear Big Mama Thornton sing Hound Dog, since it was written for her.
Elvis doesn’t get any of those chances. His songs are cut up and diced up and thrown around like a bunch of vegetables in the food processor as you are making gazpacho. I just don’t appreciate the higgledy piggledy style of Luhrmann’s editing.
The result of this chaos is a movie that is a bit too long. Momentum drags especially when the story centers on Colonel Parker, played by Hanks. It would have been nice if we had learned why Parker was such a nefarious character, but all we learn about are his experience as a carney, a conman, and an addicted gambler. These traits did not help Elvis, and I blame Parker for Presley’s disgraceful movie career which dragged down his reputation not just as a singer but as a bad judge of quality.
I guess I had forgotten the similar failure of The Great Gatsby, how Luhrmann’s style got in the way of telling a tragic story. Luhrmann just can’t do it. He’s a capable director in many ways– he knows why music elevates us to a higher plane, he did that beautifully in Moulin Rouge, and he knows villains– and can create complex characters, but when it comes to crafting a coherent story he just can’t do it. The story he wants to tell — that Parker is just as commanding a figure as Elvis– is not convincing. I grew tired of trying to follow along, and then restless for the exit.