Review: Despite stylizing the hell out of his newest film, Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is a colossal misfire that seems off from the jump. Told through the eyes of his manager, “Elvis” feels more like airing out dirty laundry than it does an honest biopic.
Oscars season is slowly approaching, which means there are a few months ahead where contenders are going to be picked apart and compared to each other in many of the biggest categories. Each year, there seems to be a film or two that I personally couldn’t stomach much at all. The club currently includes the likes of “Being the Ricardos,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Revenant,” and a few others. I don’t want to jump the gun quite yet, but I imagine “Elvis” will be joining this club when the nominations are announced later in January.
Let me take you back to a time before “Elvis” had actually hit the big screen. Baz Luhrmann, the film’s director and one of cinema’s most distinct visionaries, felt like the perfect leader of a project based on one of music’s defining performers. Combined with the larger-than-life Tom Hanks and a carbon copy of Elvis in Austin Butler, there was no way this film was going to fail. There was too much working in its favor.
And then the film hit theaters. And the critical reviews started rolling out. And the opinions continued to pour in. And before I had even seen it, my expectations were slightly diminished. Not that I thought “Elvis” was going to be bad, but it didn’t feel like the surefire hit that it once was. And don’t get me wrong, it made a lot of money at the box office, but “Elvis” isn’t good. In fact, it’s quite bad. One of 2022’s worst mainstream releases and a nearly three hour event that sucked the life out of me in the moment.
Its flaws have been well documented by now, but let’s run through them before talking about the film’s Oscars implications. As one would imagine, a film about Elvis and titled “Elvis” should be about… Elvis? Instead, Baz Luhrmann takes a different perspective. The movie is seen mostly through the eyes of his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in perhaps the worst performance of his career and a stain on this film that I still struggle to wrap my brain around) and the financial abuse he took on Elvis throughout the star’s career.
Understandably, this comes off as rather insincere and makes Elvis seem like more of a chess piece in Tom Parker’s dealings than the megastar that he was. Austin Butler’s performance is pushed completely off to the side as he stands in as the stoic performer’s lifeless body when he isn’t on stage dazzling and transforming. There’s a clear disconnect between the genuine person and musician Elvis was, and the person Baz Luhrmann wants to portray on screen.
And in turn, “Elvis” becomes more about the Baz Luhrmann than Elvis Presley. The stylistic flourishes and transitions that Luhrmann has become notorious for are all here and are all generally entertaining, and given the tremendous cultural impact of the film’s leading name, they all make sense. There’s a form of filmmaking Luhrmann exercises better than anyone, but the movie lacks the storytelling to match it. Unlike, “The Great Gatsby” or “Moulin Rouge!,” “Elvis” is completely dumbfounding from a narrative perspective – and one I’ve been meaning to revisit for quite some time but can’t find the energy or will to do so.
But given that “Elvis” is almost certainly going to be nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, and Austin Butler seems inevitable for Best Actor, the film is going to stay in the daily discourse for a while. There’s a large cult-like following that lives in the shadows of what Baz Luhrmann is doing here, but thinking about the future conversations we’re going to have about this film’s Oscars prospects makes me throw up a bit already.
Which brings this whole conversation to Austin Butler – the film’s titular actor and a rising star in the industry. While he certainly looks and performs scarily similar to the real thing, the movie never gives him enough runway to take over as Elvis Presley. If he were to win Best Actor, and it’s seeming more and more possible as the days go on, than it’d be one of the more shocking wins in recent memory. His dialogue is few and far between, and there’s not nearly enough versatility in the performance beyond looking like his real life character.
But I digress. “Elvis” is a shockingly brutal misfire from Baz Luhrmann and the staff that put together this script. It feels more like an estate airing out their grievances than an honest portrayal of one of music’s largest stars to ever walk the planet. Maybe these criticisms were a bit too harsh, but according to Baz Luhrmann, I guess style can vastly outweigh the content. I sure hope the inevitable Elvis film that comes out decades from now is much better than this hot mess.