If you’re making a biopic about a singer, the first one of his songs you include makes a statement. That statement becomes all the more significant for an Elvis Presley biopic, since you have so many hits to choose from. Baz Luhrmann, who directed and helped write “Elvis,” chose “Suspicious Minds.” There it is at the very start of the movie, playing in the background.
No question, “Suspicious Minds” is a great, great song — that rolling-guitar intro, that throb in Elvis’s voice — but there are a lot of great Elvis songs, many with comparable throb. Why this one? Well, none of the others have for their first line “We’re caught in a trap.” Luhrmann is trying to tell us something, and the fact that the movie doesn’t begin with its namesake on screen but with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, really tells us something. So does the fact that Tom Hanks, who plays the Colonel, is top billed, over Austin Butler, who plays Presley.
In many ways, “Elvis” is a Parker biopic as much as a Presley one. “I am you, and you are me,” the Colonel says to Elvis. The movie acts on that principle. This is what’s most interesting about “Elvis.” It’s also what’s most maddening. Or almost what’s most maddening. What’s most maddening is how Luhrmann keeps pulling out stops you didn’t even know were there. We get split screens, slo mo, superimposed titles, comic book pages, news photos, kooky camera angles, sped-up footage, stop action, switching to black and white, heavenly choirs, chronological loop-the-loops, swooping camerawork, lots of crane shots. Boy, does Luhrmann love crane shots. There’s even, Lord have mercy, a hall-of-mirrors scene.
It all gets a bit exhausting. With everything so consistently outrageous, outrageousness becomes a common denominator. When “Elvis” is good, it’s quite good, in an awful sort of way. When it’s awful, it’s quite awful, in an entertaining sort of way. The movie can’t make up its mind if it’s chronicling a struggle for the soul of America (spoiler alert: bye-bye Beale Street, hello, Vegas) or it’s just a tabloid schlockfest. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, especially where Elvis is concerned. “I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman said. Whitman had nothing on Elvis. Since Luhrmann’s original cut ran four hours — the released version clocks in at just under two hours and 40 minutes — maybe we should count ourselves lucky. Or cheated.
In fairness, outrageousness and excess are what Luhrmann does. It goes beyond artistic trademark to a kind of compulsion. He indulges in way-too-much as naturally as most people pour milk on their cornflakes. So the excessiveness, while maddening, isn’t surprising. Luhrmann is to filmmaking what Elvis’s cape and white jumpsuit are to haberdashery. But having one of the most exciting performers of the 20th century, and the second-most-impactful, take a back seat to a tubby, shifty, small-minded con man? Now that’s a surprise.
(If Elvis is number two, who’s number one? That would be Louis Armstrong, but don’t get me started.)
Swathed in prosthetics and muttering in heavily accented English (Parker was born in the Netherlands), Hanks is barely recognizable. He gives a witty, gleefully self-aware performance. Luhrmann’s letting him have so much screen time at least in part nods to how effective Hanks is. Austin Butler, by the way, very much holds up his end. Is it more Elvis impersonation than performance? You be the judge. But if it’s “just” an impersonation, it’s hard to imagine a better one. Butler, who does his own vocals, really gets Elvis’s voice down, singing and speaking both. One oddity, though, is that he has the late Ray Liotta’s eyes.
You can sense how liberated Hanks feels, wearing what amounts to a kind of disguise and getting to play such a non-Tom Hanks character. What fun it must be to play someone who smokes a cigar lying in his hospital bed (the way Hanks has the Colonel hold his cigars between his middle and fourth fingers is nicely observed). He isn’t saving Private Ryan. He’s incarcerating the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (In one of the movie’s finer grace notes — and this really happened — Elvis protests that the title rightly belongs to Fats Domino.) Parker, as seen here, is part buffoon, part evil manipulator. “There are some who make me out to be the villain in this history,” says an aghast Colonel. By dint of providing a voice-over, heard in about half the scenes, he maintains a control over the movie not unlike the control he has over Presley. “Elvis” is a version of the Faust story where Mephistopheles gets equal time.
There are various fine touches. (Luhrmann has a talent for detail to go with his weakness for excess.) The first time we hear Elvis’s debut single, “That’s All Right,” it’s being played on a portable record player by Hank Snow’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The Colonel and Elvis are on a Ferris wheel when they agree he’ll be his manager. Elvis’s Memphis Mafia are introduced movie coming attractions-style. During the shooting of the 1968 comeback special — a major episode in the movie — the Colonel wears what has to be the most hideous Christmas sweater in recorded history.
There are even more lapses. Some you’d need to know your Elvis history to pick up on, except that they’re so tonally off maybe not. The great Scotty Moore, Elvis’s original guitarist, using feedback? Please! Elvis didn’t start taking pills until he was in the Army. While he and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) were friendly, no way Elvis went to him for career advice. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy didn’t occur during the filming of the comeback special. Others are obvious even to civilians. The Manson murders and Altamont took place four months apart, not the same day.
The biggest lapse is how the movie tries to have things both ways. Parker is shrewd enough to manipulate Elvis, but such a dope he doesn’t appreciate how much Elvis is truly worth, financially or artistically: that his client (his meal ticket) is incomparably more than what he describes as “the greatest carnival attraction I’d ever seen.” The Colonel can’t begin to appreciate that Elvis is . . . Elvis.
Conversely, in presenting Elvis as caught in a trap of Parker’s making, the movie denies him agency. If the Colonel is so dumb, doesn’t that make Elvis that much dumber? “Elvis” worships its subject, but beneath that worship is a condescension, presumably unconscious, that borders on contempt. Or perhaps the contempt is for itself. Luhrmann ends the movie with some actual Presley footage. Elvis enters the building just as “Elvis” is leaving it. The comparison isn’t to the movie’s advantage.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner. Starring Tom Hanks, Austin Butler. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 159 minutes. PG-13 (substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material, smoking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.