There is a stubborn contradiction at the heart of Baz Luhrmann’s characteristically unrestrained take on the life of Elvis Aaron Presley. The film’s reasonable premise is that Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks blinking through layers of latex), the Dutch-born carnival huckster who managed the King from 1956, lured a raw talent away from his soulful roots and forced him into a more artificial, less angular school of pure showbusiness. The problem here is that latter world is very much Luhrmann’s own. There is plenty of Vegas-era Elvis in his Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge! You will search in vain for flavours of the Sun Studios-era Presley in his work.
Right from the beginning of Elvis! (okay, the title doesn’t take the Moulin Rouge! exclamation point, but it seems implied) we are drowning beneath the brassy glitz that characterised the singer’s later work. Early scenes see him happening upon gospel music while wearing Captain Marvel’s lightning flash round his neck. Every surface is cleanly wiped. Every fabric seems fresh out of the box. There is no journey to Vegas. We are essentially there from the opening scene. The rapidly cut noise and bustle reminds us that Luhrmann sees all films as musicals and all musicals as camp assault. Elvis!! (sorry) doesn’t so much win you over as hammer you into submission. It dumps you into a sealed drum, blasts hysterically re-edited versions of the familiar music into that sealed space and rattles it furiously until you pass out or — ears bleeding — give in to the benevolent torture and confess everything.
Actors other than Hanks and Austin Butler — dealt an impossible hand in the lead role — appear, but the surrounding beach assault all but drowns them out. (If I could remember anything about Olivia DeJonge’s Priscilla I would have let you know.) Presented as something between Orson Welles in Touch of Evil and an eccentrically accented, ambulatory slag heap, Hanks savours casting against his usual type. He licks his lips. His eyes are, for all we can tell, rolling dramatically beneath the prosthetics. Nobody with a brain in their skulls will rate this among his finest performances, but neither could anyone pretend that the great man is coasting. It probably wasn’t worth his becoming the first celebrity Covid patient, but his Colonel Tom sticks in the brain like chewing gum sticks in hair.
Butler has charisma, good looks and rock‘n’roll chops. Unfortunately, the indelible memory of the real thing never allows his thinly drawn character to breathe. He is, however, at home in ways neither actor nor director can have desired. Elvis!!! is shot largely in Luhrmann’s native Australia. It looks as hot as Tennessee. The scrubland seems as dusty. But it feels no more like the real thing than Butler feels like Elvis Presley.
For all that, Elvis!!!! may still be Luhrmann’s least irritating project since Moulin Rouge! It is certainly more in control of itself than his deafening The Great Gatsby (tinnitus still lingers from 2013). Nobody unfamiliar with Presley’s transcendent early recordings for Sun — simultaneously raw and tight — will find any enlightenment here as to why they became so influential. Happening before Parker’s arrival, those sessions are raced through in a perfunctory buzz. But the longer the film goes on and the closer we get to the Vegas years, the more appropriate Luhrmann’s split-screen carpet-bombing seems. Shot in rolling swoops by Mandy Walker, and edited in galloping hiccups by Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond, the later sequences make a virtue of their own diamante vulgarity. The viewer may struggle with the continuing inconsistency — the film is more comfortable with the supposedly compromised Elvis than the barely seen roots artist — but the audience is, at least, propelled back into the street in something like an elevated mood.
That is what Baz does. He gives you Baz. A whole bucket of Baz.