Luhrmann delivers style over substance in “Elvis”

Elvis (Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge) – Nothing about Baz Luhrmann’s movies is subtle … ever. Moulin Rouge is an amazing, giant film. The Great Gatsby is grand. Australia is panoramic and sprawling. Even his version of Romeo + Juliet, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, feels larger than any other stage or film version.

In Elvis, Luhrmann lures us into the saga of The King of Rock ‘n Roll, the biggest, grandest star between Frank Sinatra and Beyoncé. An average biopic of Elvis would superficially trace the would-be-star from his humble beginnings in Tupelo to a toilet in Graceland with his rocketing to fame as the hip swinging recording, TV and movie star to his service in the military to his return as pop icon to his degeneration into aging, bloated legend.

Elvis covers most of that ground but not all. It tackles Elvis as largely a depressing, manipulated pawn of Svengali Colonel Tom Parker, his manager. Luhrmann’s Elvis is a talented kid with musical roots in rhythm and blues, rockabilly, and country. It is Parker’s eye for talent and his uncanny promotional skills that lands Elvis a recording contract, concert and TV gigs, and a residency in Las Vegas that almost kills him. Parker (Tom Hanks in one of the few performances where you never forget it’s Tom Hanks) is the focal point of the film. At least that’s Luhrmann’s version, which forever will become the narrative on Elvis’ career.

With nine Oscar nominations, Elvis is a smashing film. It’s full of music, punch, and grandiosity. For all of its accolades, it is interestingly not nominated for either directing or screenplay; or, for that matter, music. Rather, it boasts nominations for cinematography, costume design, make-up & hairstyling, sound, production design and, of course, for Best Actor for Austin Butler.

My point here is that Elvis is a spectacle, a Baz Luhrmann original, style over substance. When we celebrate Elvis the movie, we are not celebrating Elvis the person. That’s too bad. In Luhrmann’s movie, Elvis is a victim. Parker is the devil.

Austin Butler is fantastic, perhaps the best Elvis impersonator ever. His range is impressive. He sings several of the songs himself and is mixed with the real Elvis in others. He totally inhabits the character and is one of the favorites for Best Actor.

Like most Luhrmann films, we are left with our eyes wide open, lured by the grandeur and lost in the plot. Elvis deserves its nomination as Best Picture, but it won’t win. Luhrmann has still never been nominated as Best Director despite his distinctive style. I just wish there was more substance.

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