A manipulative carnival huckster hits it big when he takes over the soon-to-be-legendary career of singing sensation Elvis.
Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) might as well have modeled his career after noted showman P.T. Barnum, who’s credited with stating, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Parker saw everyone as a tool to be leveraged for maximum profit. It didn’t matter if they were his clients, his client’s fans or anyone else he came in contact with. All of them were little more than walking, talking dollar signs just waiting to be squeezed for every last dime. The only thing missing was a truly transformative talent whom Parker could guide and ride into the upper echelons of success, milking him all the way to the top. The missing ingredient would come his way in 1956 with the signing of an energetic, electric young singer named Elvis Presley (Austin Butler).
Iconic director Baz Luhrmann‘s latest film centers on Elvis’s longtime enigmatic manager Parker, who tells his smarmy, self-serving story through a series of hyper-exaggerated flashbacks and reimaginings starting in the mid-1950s, just before meeting the king of rock and roll. Every membrane of this project has the characteristic Luhrmann stamp. It’s dreamy, glitzy and loaded with style. This approach worked wonders on films like The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge, but runs into some bumps with a biopic.
To get things rolling, Luhrmann starts off with a split-screen presentation first made famous with 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair and 1979’s More American Graffiti. This has the impact of instantly driving up the force of a scene as you’re overloaded with competing visuals. Luhrmann returns to this device several times later. Every time, you’re left a bit breathless from the raw power of Presley’s prowess.
Hanks plays the crafty manager with a bent toward the cartoonish. You’re never quite sure how serious to treat him. This is further emphasized by the use of a curious accent that the real Parker lacked. As the singer, Butler exudes unmistakable charisma, but gives you an Elvis who’s heavy on the glam and less on the man. Regardless, I have little doubt that this performance will keep his phone ringing for quite some time.
So what’s the core takeaway? Mixed. Luhrmann’s technique had my toes tapping, but left my intrigue lacking. That’s the catch with applying his signature style to a true story. The hodgepodge of visual styles and snippet-like approach to every subject fails to convey any sense of authenticity. The fact-free writing only exacerbates this concern. In one critical scene, you’re given the clear impression that Elvis wrote a key song, but that never happened. Elvis didn’t write songs, although his record label still insisted on receiving 50% of the writing credit for many songs that true songwriters wanted him to record.
The entire story line involving Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) is pure Hollywood manipulation. In Luhrmann’s retelling, Parker was blindsided by her emergence. In reality, he controlled their relationship just as he did everything else in the singer’s life. The story completely glosses over the fact that Elvis was 24 when he began dating the 14-year-old in 1959, a fact dishonestly hidden by making the young Priscilla look much older.
If Luhrmann’s only goal was to convert more fans to the magic of Elvis’s voice, he succeeded. This nearly-three-hour musical medley covers much of the singer’s catalog, with some distant flashes of story tossed in for good measure. Maybe that’s enough for most people. I wanted a deeper look behind the curtain and into the man over the myth, but I couldn’t really see Elvis through all the bright lights and glitter.