The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a body seemingly obsessed with the idea and recognition of so-called great men, loves a good biopic. Making a movie about a real famous person is a surefire way to get a few Oscar nominations whether it be one of the countless films recognizing Churchill or Thatcher (sans war crimes and unsavory policies) or the crowd-pleasing, if slightly-sanitized, music biopics of Bohemian Rhapsody or Walk the Line. This year’s subject of fawning praise is Elvis, a member of that latter category, featuring Austin Butler in a star-making role as the King himself.
On the surface, one might be fooled into thinking that this would just be one of those aforementioned films, largely boring, but featuring self-evidently excellent music and moderately “transformational” performances. Elvis, however, isn’t just a music biopic: It’s a Baz Luhrmann movie. Baz, whose previous efforts include the endlessly maximalist Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, seems on the surface to be a fitting choice for a movie about a man who led such an extravagantly sized life, and, on some level, he is. The Elvis biopic is as big as can be expected and filled with all the colors and extremity to match Luhrmann’s style and Presley’s brand. Unfortunately, however, Baz Luhrmann’s brand of maximalism is neither legitimately entertaining nor intellectually compelling, giving Elvis all the style, but none of the substance. Where Elvis manages to ever so slightly break free of genre conventions, it supplements dullness with disgust. Ultimately, Luhrmann has produced an exercise in grotesquery, as unpleasant to watch as it’s entirely regressive to think about.
It may be unfair to start by talking about the racial politics of Elvis. After all, the film certainly doesn’t want to think about them, considering how cavalierly and quickly they’re cast off in a film that is nearly three hours long. Our introduction to how Luhrmann plans to handle the issue comes in an absurdly edited sequence featuring some five or so ambulatory reaction shots to the notion that Elvis, the man they’re all hearing on the radio, is in fact white. Later, the film chocks up legitimate criticisms of Elvis as an appropriator or an exploiter of Black culture to the notion that the man “wished he was Black.” Though one could hardly expect such a rosy-eyed film to honestly reckon with the dubious racial politics of its protagonist, it isn’t inappropriate to hope that it may do better than a poorly executed punchline and a series of absurd dismissals.
Defenders of this film, of which there are many, may not care about the racial politics. After all, what film today doesn’t have a bit of a thorny political underbelly. In fact, they’ll point to everything as a bit of a genre mockery, purporting that Elvis has some grand satirical project of imitating the glamorous, but dangerous, “snow job” to the point of exhaustion. Its cleverness is in how it matches the allure of celebrity then gives way to an eventual disillusionment. If that’s so, it fails. Besides an uninteresting depiction of the business, complete with ugly digitally rendered stages, Luhrmann still constantly approaches everything with an earnestness towards Elvis. With such rosy glasses pointed towards the protagonist, Elvis becomes an uninteresting morality tale, sapping any bite that the visual extremity might hold. Opposite Presley is our guiding deceiver to this Circus: Tom Hanks’s cartoonish Colonel Tom Parker. The performance, bizarre and unpleasant in many ways, produces neither an interesting character, nor a legitimate tactician. Instead, his villainy falls so far into vague xenophobic ridicule that it feels more inspired by black-and-white WWII Propaganda films than the real-life Colonel.
Parker represents the most awful part of an otherwise dull and unremarkable film. Luhrmann’s interest in Parker as a villain is understandable. There’s a legitimate argument to be made against the real-life figure (by all accounts he’s a heinous representative of greater rot in the entertainment industry). Elvis, however, doesn’t care about what Parker represents, or, alternatively, whether Parker stands alone. Luhrmann is so obsessed with the singular portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker as a villain that he is willing to present every single other figure as heroic. All the other potential managers are more legitimately interested in Elvis’s art and success; drug addiction is characterized entirely through the eyes of Parker’s response to it. In the end, Parker isn’t even a greedy capitalist: He’s a gambling addict who needs his fix. His final curse on Elvis’s legacy emerges out of necessity, from the same system that seemingly sucked up and spit out his client. This, however, is a comparison upon which Luhrmann doesn’t care to indulge, instead uplifting his simplistic story with little legitimate reflection.
One has to suspect that Elvis was recognized by the Academy for its quality as a Baby Boomer showcase of their King and a simultaneous attack on the transgressor who ended his reign. Butler’s passable performance (made legendary by his current refusal to abandon the trademark accent) and Luhrmann’s flashy direction serve to exhilarate the most uncritical elder statesmen of the industry, all while those same qualities arm defenders with a ridiculous language of intentionality. Whether it’s an unambiguous endorsement of extremity or an ineffective commentary on it, Elvis remains grotesque. It’s a regressive relic of older films, modernized in the worst ways through excessive visuals, editing, music and cinematography. Preserved from film history are only poor racial politics, idiotic black-and-white characterization and rote storytelling, just enough to produce a “they don’t make films like this anymore” response. In reality, they never did, and, frankly, they shouldn’t ever again.
This is the first article in a series covering each of the Best Picture Oscar Nominees.
Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].