Elvis's ambition is its greatest flaw
Baz Luhrmann's epic biopic is an enjoyable spectacle – but it's let down by a lack of focus.
Throughout the press tour for Elvis, Baz Luhrmann has insisted that his film shouldn't be seen as a biopic in the traditional sense of the word. "This is not really a biopic," he explained during a CinemaCon panel back in April. "It’s really for me about America in the '50s and '60s and '70s. If you want to talk about America in the '50s and '60s and '70, at the centre of culture, for the good the bad and the ugly, was Elvis."
To be fair to Luhrmann, there are certainly things about the film that distinguish it from other recent examples of the genre – less inventive films such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Respect. For example, the Australian filmmaker's always exuberant directing style – full of flashy editing and flamboyant sets and eccentric camera movements – ensures that Elvis is never anything short of a brilliant spectacle, while the decision to sprinkle in modern music alongside the well-known hits is also an interesting touch.
And yet despite this, the film isn't able to avoid the major pitfall that plagues so many musical biopics – coming off as a checklist of important moments from its subject's life rather than a genuine exploration of his inner self. Across its lengthy runtime, the film essentially ticks off an assortment of bullet points – the origins of Elvis-mania, his romance with Priscilla, his 1968 Comeback Special – without ever really pausing to consider the significance of these moments in any meaningful way, racing through various highs and lows at such breakneck speed that it sometimes feels more like a 2-and-a-half-hour montage than a coherent narrative.
The problem, really, is that Luhrmann has tried to stuff too much story into one film – and indeed his admission that an even longer four-hour version exists only seems to underline this point further. It would have made much more sense to focus on a specific moment of Presley's career – his long years in Vegas for example – and use that as a backdrop to more thoroughly explore some of the same themes that the film largely brushes over.
This isn't to say that other aspects of the King of Rock 'n' Roll's life and legacy aren't important or interesting, but simply that in trying to be everything all at once the film ends up doing its subject a bit of a disservice. Why not simply accept that most people will already be broadly familiar with the beginning of his career and jump straight into a more focused story about his decline, one that actually has time to dive a little below the surface?
Alternatively, another option might have been to go for a similar approach to the one taken by the terrific 2014 Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. That film jumped between two different sections of The Beach Boys star's life – his creative apex in the '60s and his later mental health struggles in the '80s – allowing us to see both the highs and the lows without necessarily needing to showcase every single moment from cradle to grave.
As much of the film's marketing has made clear, the crux of the movie is the relationship between Elvis and his long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker, a sinister huckster played as a pantomime villain by Tom Hanks. This is an interesting way into the story, and there are some good scenes between the two characters – but again, the film loses focus on their dynamic when it frequently veers off into other directions that it never properly commits to.
In the end, it's difficult to escape the fact that the film comes across as a rather bloated and unfocused mess – which is a real shame given there are some things it unquestionably gets right. For one thing, Austin Butler is sensational in the lead role. The young actor embodies the King with real charisma and heart, especially during the electric musical performances – the staging of which allows Luhrmann to play firmly into his strengths as a director.
And as mentioned above, some of the sequences Luhrmann crafts are genuinely spectacular from a purely aesthetic point of view – even his most ardent critics would find it hard to deny that few directors working today are more capable when it comes to this kind of extravagant movie-making. But for all that to really count, the film just needed a greater narrative focus – one that perhaps scaled back the ambition just a little and didn't try to be such a definitive biography.