'Elvis' Review: Baz Luhrmann Turns Raw, Gyrating Machismo Into Charisma That's Just Loud [Cannes]

There’s really no overstating the sociocultural impact of Elvis Aaron Presley, whose music and celebrity cleaved the twentieth century in half as an Ozymandias colossus foretelling the future of fame: merchandising, overexposure, descent into self-parody. That’s all in Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis,” though mostly because he’s jammed everything he possibly can into its million-millennia run time. These elements may be present, and yet they’re hustled along in the same manner as we speed by his marriage, the death of his mother, and his career in Hollywood. The details of biography aren’t of too much interest to Luhrmann, which almost works in his favor, as the relentless formlessness of the plot moves too quickly to lapse into “Dewey Cox” cliché, the “wrong kid died” and “you don’t want no part of this, Elvis!” tropes whizzing by at a zippy BPM. Ideas aren’t really the filmmaker’s bag either, aside from the notion that Elvis (Austin Butler, illustrating that a good impression does not equate to good acting) was the first-ever white person to give a damn about African-Americans and their heritage, which is to say he brought the concept of cool into the Caucasian-dominated mainstream.

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Luhrmann sees the chief utility of Elvis (or “Booby,” as his loved ones called him) as a pedestal for his everything-all-the-time maximalism, the King of Rock and Roll’s taste for excess in harmony with the Aussie auteur’s desire to shove shock-and-awe cinematic effect down his viewers’ throats until we choke to death on whip zooms. Following a kaleidoscopic version of the Warner Bros logo encrusted with CGI jewels, the first twenty minutes or so whisk us at vomit-inducing warp speed through a flurry of Vegas iconography and digitized geography, soaring up and down the side of the International Hotel like one of the superheroes idolized by a young Elvis. This ‘stop the ride, I want to get off’ extreme of kineticism will subside in time, even if Luhrmann won’t fully abandon his fetish for split screens, contrasting camera formats, and any other jiggery-pokery that might obscure his core lack of substance. At that late point, what’s left is the relationship between two men, as underdeveloped as every other concept the film glances past on its way to the next display of aesthetic pyrotechnics.

Elvis’ rise-and-fall is related in the voiceover of Svengali manager Colonel Tom Parker, delivered by a fat-suited, prosthetics-laden Tom Hanks in the kind of performance that invites a home run derby of metaphors. Such as: the unholy lovechild of a Maine Justice lawyer and Sigmund Freud, or perhaps a speech therapy patient hailing from the Kentucky region of Holland. A carnival huckster with a passion for snowglobe collecting, he was actually pretty terrible at managing the once-in-a-generation talent he lucked into representing, making more bad bets with Elvis’ career trajectory than he did at the poker tables that proved his downfall. His true skill laid in emotional manipulation, as he constantly convinced the world’s biggest entertainer that he’d be helpless without the guidance of a weird, compulsive liar. The far-too-late dissolution of this partnership aims for pathos, as the lone narrative strand Luhrmann puts in the time to flesh out, yet the total lack of interiority in either character lends these scenes all the weight of a sock-puppet play.

When Elvis hears the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination, one in a handful of carelessly invoked historical bullet points that also includes the Troubles (?!), it’s a fleeting reminder that he still cares about the Black people whose music he respects too much to have simply stolen. Confused desecration of graven pop artifacts turns out to be a running concern here, with the leading lights of the Warner Music Group portfolio putting their own tacky spin on Elvis standards best-left unfucked-with. (Some artists contribute original songs hilariously out-of-place among the rhythm-and-blues classics; rapped verses from Doja Cat overlay lyrics like “flewed out / my boobs out” on top of aerial shots of circa-‘50s Beale Street.)

There’s enough in here to push the first hour or so into enjoyably bad territory, from the utterance of the line “I’m sorry, Miss Jackson” to the recurring appearance of an unscrupulous “Dr. Nick” surely the namesake of the resident quack on “The Simpsons.” That still leaves so much movie and so little to recommend it, as thinly sketched personalities collide within a predictable template. Any complexities Elvis may have had to go unexplored in favor of yet another ostentatious montage, and the transparently greedy Colonel Tom isn’t deep enough to pick up the slack. They’re both just props in a showbiz wonderland, Elvis’ position at the dawn of fandom-driven mania the clear draw of the material for Luhrmann. Raw, gyrating machismo turned Elvis into a god with the power to bring teenyboppers to instantaneous orgasm with a swing of the hips. Under Luhrmann’s unthrottled tutelage, that overwhelming dynamo of charisma is made merely loud. [C]

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