Elvis: Long Live the King, by Tyler Smith
One would be hard-pressed to find a film that more fully embodies the tragedy and exhilaration of show business than Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. An over-the-top, gaudy spectacle, this film lovingly embraces the excesses of its subject, effectively elevating it above other, more conventional musical biopics, which so often become bogged down in workmanlike reverence. That in itself would have been enough to make Elvis a memorable, exciting movie, but Luhrmann’s approach to the material shows an audacity seldom found in modern tentpole movies. The musical biopic is a staple of American cinema and the formula has become familiar to any savvy moviegoer, but Luhrmann understands that this isn’t just any musical biopic because it isn’t just any musician. With all due respect to the likes of Johnny Cash, Elton John, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, and Freddy Mercury, this is Elvis Presley we’re talking about. The King of Rock and Roll. His level of fame was so gargantuan that few people can even fathom it. And it is that unfathomability that Luhrmann chooses to embrace, allowing Elvis to remain an unknowable mystery to a viewing audience eager to know more. We reach out desperately, hoping to catch a glimpse underneath the flashy exterior, but are forced to be content with a brief moment of eye contact and a knowing smile. And building an ostentatious epic around a tantalizing enigma is a huge risk, on the level of no less than David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. And just as Lean uses the story of T.E. Lawrence to make larger points about war, nationalism, and shared humanity, so Luhrmann attempts to use the life of Elvis Presley – which burned so brightly before flaming out far too soon – to explore the alternately toxic and invigorating nature of entertainment. It is a masterful, vital film, and one of the best of the year.
In what could be considered a tasteless decision, Elvis’s story is told by his unscrupulous manager, Col. Tom Parker (played under heavy makeup and heavier accent by a charming and devilish Tom Hanks). A small-time promoter in the 1950s, Parker happens upon a young, charismatic performer named Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) whose pelvic gyrations and love of traditionally black music reaches a young white audience in a way that few other performers could hope to. Parker sees such potential in Presley that he drops his other clients and focuses exclusively on making the young man the biggest star in the world. Reluctant at first, Elvis soon allows himself to get swept up in Parker’s enthusiastic philosophizing, conceding to almost all of the older man’s plans for him. Sure enough, Parker packages and presents Elvis to the world and it is only too happy to embrace him. What follows is a dizzying series of montages depicting Presley’s meteoric rise, stopping only briefly to show those rare moments when Parker allows his client to feel actual human emotions, like love and loss.
But even as Parker manipulates Elvis, we are continually treated to one beautiful, energetic musical performance after another. These sequences are so thrilling that it becomes easy to forget the ultimate end that we are headed for. And by the time it does come, we are not only mourning this energetic young performer, but we are very aware that Parker only sees the loss of his meal ticket.
The dynamic between these two men – the talented artist and the possessive businessman – is what Elvis is actually about. It may have all the trappings of a biopic, but Luhrmann is much more interested in the simultaneously beneficial and destructive relationship between art and commerce. As Parker himself is quick to mention, he may have been using Elvis, but only after he so effectively made Elvis rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams. As important as it is that we understand the role that Parker played in Elvis’s eventual exhaustion and premature death, it is equally important to see the vital part that he played in his success. But, lest we think that Luhrmann and his writers are content to portray the uneasy symbiosis of these two men and what they represent, they don’t let us forget that it is ultimately Parker’s greed that throws off the balance, destroying the artist and thus his own success. You can call it killing the Golden Goose, but perhaps the more apt analogy is the Frog and the Scorpion. Parker’s avarice is so all-consuming that it eventually brings about its own demise, as well. A lesser biopic would have been exclusively interested in the drugs that killed the King; Elvis is much more curious about what may have made him think he had to take them.
But please don’t think that the film is some kind of dour exercise in finger-wagging. Luhrmann’s creative instincts serve to let that be an undercurrent while we are left breathless by the complex and extravagant musical performances. These sequences are shot and cut in such a way as to put us right in the midst of the excitement, getting swept up in the gravitational pull of a superstar.
And as that superstar, Austin Butler works as hard as any actor in film history, and to even greater effect. Of course he perfectly approximates the physical mannerisms and cadence of Elvis, but that’s just the beginning. Elvis is one of the most imitated public figures ever, and for good reason. Butler goes even further, internalizing the sheer, adrenaline-fueled passion for performance that propelled Elvis to stardom. While so many other Elvis impersonators play up the kung fu kicks and messianic song climaxes, Butler manages to so perfectly embody the character that such flamboyant movements seem only natural; as though the music is so powerful that it can’t come out merely through his voice. The love of the audience bursts out of the actor with such commitment that it almost brings a tear to the eye. While it may be obvious to compare Austin Butler’s performance to that of Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line or Jamie Foxx in Ray, it’s actually more akin to the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. It is a complete physical and spiritual commitment to whatever the character requires.
By the end of the film, we don’t know that much more about Elvis than we did at the beginning. Much of the story itself could be seen as little more than a dramatized Wikipedia entry. But this film is about much more than simply and straightforwardly depicting the major events of Elvis Presley’s life. It is about trying to capture his essence and, beyond that, his mystique. Among the many things this film does is reinforce the true unknowability of American icons. We may think we knew people like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, but in truth we only knew about them; there’s always more going on that we aren’t allowed to see, and might not understand if we were. As recognizable as Elvis was, his tragic death at 42 only served to suggest that there was a tortured soul underneath the sequins and sunglasses. Rather than try to perfunctorily explain that torture away, Baz Luhrmann chooses instead to retain an air of mystery surrounding Elvis Presley, focusing on the business that he so loved, but that ultimately – maybe even joyfully – destroyed him.