* * * * 1/2
In an earlier life, I spent nine months (with some breaks) playing the ghost of Elvis Presley in Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. During the rehearsal period and then throughout the run, I immersed myself in all things Presley: I read the books, watched the specials and the movies and the documentaries, and, far most importantly, I listened to the music. I got obsessed, in a good way, and had a whale of a time. I appreciated the man from every angle, and in every way.
So too, clearly, does Baz Luhrmann, and his epic Elvis is a love letter to an artist he admires and obviously finds a deep connection with. It’s very Baz; like most of his work, the dialogue scenes are spare and fast, and deep characterization always gives way to visceral visual and audial spectacle. That’s his way, and that’s this film. Another could give us more insight into Elvis’ pains, traumas and (in particular) family relationships. This one gives us the talent and the sex appeal.
It also gives us The Colonel (Tom Hanks). It actually gives us too much Colonel, including the film’s absolute worst element (and essential misfire), a truly badly written, on-the-nose VO narration. Elvis is told from The Colonel’s point of view, in hindsight from a hospital bed, as an answer to his critics. The approach is valid, the writing is way off (which is not to say Hanks’ performance is; it’s fine, if a little fruity. But what in a Luhrmann film isn’t a little fruity?)
Love him or hate him, Luhrmann is a unique, visionary auteur, and one of very few on the planet who works on a mega-budget, populist, global scale. This is his best film since Strictly Ballroom; on its own terms,it is simply magnificent. It may be that the material is so suited to Luhrmann’s sensibilities; it is certain that Luhrmann found his perfect Elvis in Austin Butler. You spend the first half in awe of Baz but the second in awe of Butler, and that’s a compliment to both. The Vegas sequences are mind-bendingly well performed (and shot). This movie soars. Expect an Oscar for Best Hair and Make-Up and possibly Sound, and Oscar nominations for Best Film, Director, Butler, Tom Hanks, Production Design and Editing. Outstanding.