I had no real desire to watch Baz Luhrmann’s movie Elvis. But it’s streaming on HBO Max, so I pulled it up and checked it out. And after watching it, I’m kinda…not sure I did. It feels like I dreamed it. Not because it was “the Elvis biopic of my dreams” or anything like that. More like because it’s so fucking weird that it feels like I fell asleep with Martin Scorsese’s Casino playing on TV and Elvis songs playing on my laptop, and my brain decided to spin them into one thing.
I’ve only seen two other Baz Luhrmann movies: Strictly Ballroom, which I mostly hated because every character was a garish cartoon, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, about which I remember very little except that John Leguizamo and Harold Perrineau seemed to be having a hell of a lot more fun than Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. His whole thing is generally way more over-the-top in every way than I’m interested in. I don’t like musicals, and I don’t like the kind of pop music he uses to build his movies’ soundtracks, so there really wasn’t anything for me in Moulin Rouge! or The Great Gatsby. And why would I watch a movie called Australia when I could just watch Mad Max or Wake In Fright?
On the other hand, I love Elvis. His best 1950s songs have an energy that’s simply unmatched by other performers of the era. Though Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and plenty of others recorded (and wrote) incredible songs, Elvis Presley was a genius at synthesis. He brought together elements of country, blues, gospel, and R&B with a reckless lack of consideration for what “belonged” with what, and the sly joy audible in every word made it seem like he was jovially punching you in the shoulder, and grabbing your ass at the same time. The other great performers of the early rock ’n’ roll era could mostly do one incredible thing. Little Richard whooped so loudly it’ll still make you think your headphones are going to fly off your head; Chuck Berry was one of the sharpest, wittiest lyrical observers America has ever produced, and the first punk rock guitar player; Bo Diddley was a bizarre and hilarious primitivist genius; Jerry Lee Lewis was a creature of pure lustful, rageful id; but Elvis was simultaneously a chameleon (as he famously said, “I sing all kinds”) and utterly, purely himself.
But here’s the thing. What makes Elvis truly amazing is that he died, professionally speaking, and came back better. After two years in the Army, he made exactly one good album — 1960’s Elvis Is Back! — before shitting out close to 30 movies in eight years. One or two of those are at least mildly diverting — he really wanted to be a serious actor at first, and could be intensely charismatic, with a skillful comic presence, when given the opportunity — but they were essentially a waste of his time and the public’s. It wasn’t until 1968 that he became a serious musician again, and when he did, holy fuck. From Elvis In Memphis is one of the greatest albums ever by anybody, and I’ve written extensively about his 1970s work, in which he got as close as he could to being an “album artist” in the rockist sense. Suffice it to say here that the best work he did in his final decade was the best music of his life. Do yourself a favor and dive in.
So what I liked about Elvis, the movie, was that it spends a significant amount of its running time (2 hours 40 minutes, you’ve been warned) in Las Vegas. In fact, I would say it’s about 45% rise-to-glory, 10% mid-career doldrums (one scene of him romancing a definitely-not-14-looking Priscilla, a montage of the title screens of all his shitty movies, and one scene where everybody talks about how shitty his movies are and how he’s wasting his life and his talent making them), and 45% VEGA$$$. And it’s that final third where Luhrmann really goes nuts.
There are some good scenes early on, like one where a pre-teen Elvis sneaks into a tent revival immediately after watching a blues singer perform for floor-crawling dancers in a tiny shack and is overcome by the music, as it all fuses together inside him, the wail of the blues and the ecstatic cries of the gospel choir somehow becoming elements of the One Thing that would become the sound of Elvis Presley. Later, we see the young hitmaker Elvis, disillusioned by his manager Col. Tom Parker’s attempts to make him into a family-friendly pop act (mostly to placate law enforcement and Southern legislators), hanging out with his friend B.B. King, watching Little Richard perform and eventually singing gospel songs with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s absurd mythmaking (I mean, I suppose it could have happened something like that — it’s not like these people were massive, multi-million-selling acts back then, they were all struggling musicians to one degree or another; even Elvis was a regional phenomenon at first), but Luhrmann makes it work because he approaches it with a giddy earnestness that immunizes the movie against Walk Hard-style parody. And besides, Elvis’s life was so goddamn weird, it doesn’t even fit the music-biopic clichés. So turning it into a hallucinatory visual poem is absolutely the right choice.
Still, it’s only when we get to Vegas that we truly see the magic of Elvis the musician. The early performance sequences are just demonstrations of his shaky-legged appeal to 1950s teen girls, and they’re pretty funny. But when he films his 1968 “comeback special,” and Parker gets him his residency at the International Hotel (in order to stifle his dream of touring internationally, because Parker was secretly a fugitive from the Netherlands), Luhrmann actually shows us Elvis at work, building an enormous band with horns, male and female backing vocalists, and a string section, and rehearsing the fuck out of them until they’re delivering the spine-tingling performances that blew the walls down in that initial run of shows. He shows us that this guy was not just someone who got lucky; he was an artist who had a vision, and found the people to help him realize it.
A lot of this, mind you, is drawn straight from documentaries of the era like Elvis: That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour. And if you just want to see some amazing music, you could very easily watch those instead. For example, Luhrmann includes a version of this incredible performance of “Suspicious Minds”:
But while he re-creates the interaction between Elvis and the band, especially drummer Ronnie Tutt, pretty well, he doesn’t include the moment starting at 3:20, when Elvis stalks across the stage like a tiger to toy with one of his backup singers. I don’t know why, but I suspect it was because Austin Butler, who kind of looks like Elvis if he were drawn by comic artist Mike Zeck, just doesn’t have the raw sexual charisma of the real guy. No one on Earth does.
Which reminds me of Elvis’s weirdest flaw: Luhrmann makes the puzzling decision to keep Butler at more or less his 1968 weight throughout the movie. I don’t know why; maybe he spent the whole prosthetics budget on the gear Tom Hanks is wearing to play Col. Parker. (I have no moral objection to fat suits, for the record. Art is artifice.) But it’s a little weird when we’re supposedly seeing Elvis in the final years of his life, sitting impassive in the back of his limousine while young Lisa Marie is transferred to Priscilla’s limousine, and Priscilla climbs in to weepily ask him to go to rehab, and he looks…fine. There’s only one moment in the movie when I think they even put a little bit of padding into Butler’s cheeks, and it’s at the very end, after he’s already died, and Luhrmann is showing us one of Elvis’s truly great final performances, a June 1977 version of the Righteous Brothers song “Unchained Melody” which he performed sitting at a piano. And after a few seconds, he cuts to footage of the real Elvis, fat and sweaty and a little out of it, but singing the fuck out of the song with operatic passion:
I didn’t love Elvis. But I didn’t hate it. And there were two big reasons for that. The first was that it is genuinely one of the three greatest evocations of Las Vegas on screen, the first of which is Casino and the second is the TV show CSI. Luhrmann’s vision of Las Vegas is every bit as bizarre, otherworldly, and dark as those two (a scene where Col. Parker sells Elvis to the gangsters who own the International Hotel to cover his own gambling debts is genuinely chilling), and at the same time he manages to posit it as the only place where a motherfucker as weird and supernatural as Elvis Presley could ever have truly been at home. And the second reason, which is connected to the first, is that Elvis the movie seems to have been made by a guy who understands Elvis. There’s a lot of talk early in the film about carnival life and suckering the rubes (the movie is narrated by Parker, which I think is a really good and interesting choice), but I don’t think Luhrmann actually believes Elvis was a freak or just an act, and he doesn’t believe Elvis fans were suckers. Throughout the film, their love of his music — of him — is portrayed as honest, elemental, and real. Just like Elvis.
In this movie’s telling (and in my understanding of the man, formed by listening to his music for close to 40 years), Elvis was smart and funny and an intuitive, instinctive musical performer who figured out fast what he could do that people would like, and then honed that diamond of an idea to razor sharpness. By the time he got to Las Vegas he knew exactly what he was doing. I mean, think about how fucking weird those white jumpsuits actually were in 1969. Nobody else was dressing like that onstage! But, and this is crucial, Elvis was impervious to irony. He sold the songs he sang, whether by Lieber & Stoller or Glen Campbell or Bob Dylan or whoever else, because he meant them. When he winked at the audience between songs, or told dumb self-deprecating jokes, it was to say, We’re all having fun together, not to say, I know this is corny crap and I bet you do, too. So when you attempt to ironize Elvis, you make yourself look like an asshole. And Baz Luhrmann gets that. Which is why Elvis works. It’s a hallucinatory brain-burst of a movie, but it’s 100% serious about its subject.