Elvis ★★★

Early in Elvis, there is a scene set in a carnival funhouse. Its garish colors and warped mirrors lay the aesthetic framework for the movie. Directed by Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge), Elvis zooms through the King of Rock and Roll’s life as if it were running through a funhouse. The film is awash in music (period, anachronistic, and sometimes a mixture of both); bedazzling costumes and makeup (love Elvis’ lace shirts); and a swooping camera that soars from the 1950s to the 1970s with ecstatic ease. It’s a welcome return to Luhrmann maximalism, if you’re a fan of his style. And it’s anchored by a wild, possessed performance by Austin Butler, who gets Presley’s singing voice and—more importantly—gyrations exactly right. During the concert scenes, Luhrmann’s camera swoons beneath the reverberations of Butler’s manic electricity. Less impressive is Tom Hanks, under copious prosthetics, as Elvis’ longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who exploited Presley for every penny he could. Looking like Jabba the Hutt and sporting a Dutch-by-way-of-Transylvania accent, Hanks bookends the film with deathbed sentiments and offers unreliable, voiceover narration throughout. It’s a misstep in conception and execution. More troubling, however, is the film’s handling of Presely’s complicated relationship to Black music. Rather than acknowledging it as appropriation, Elvis means to present the white artist’s use of African-American tradition as activism—to essentially equate his “lewd gyrations and sudden jerky movements,” as one prude puts it, with the march at Selma. (One concert sequence, in which Elvis defiantly wiggles in the face of would-be censors, is intercut with scenes from a segregationist politician’s speech at a rally.) How much that reflects actual events or is yet another of the movie’s funhouse-mirror distortions I’ll leave to music historians to clarify. All I can say is that it feels gross to see Elvis tearfully watch the memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King while also expressing equivalent angst over the state of his career. Luhrmann specializes in bombast, but Elvis as a Civil Rights hero is still a bit much.

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