A common challenge in biopics is to condense the entire life of a public figure in two hours. Although cut short, Elvis’ life was complicated and messy, so the movie adaptation needed some sort of anchor to structure the script and create something meaningful. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis does this to a degree, using the Colonel as a watch-point role to see how he can use Presley, although it still feels a bit confusing in the time slot and Elvis’ personal struggle. However, Elvis effectively represented the untimely loss of life and the fear of being forgotten. Combining Luhrmann’s exploitative direction with Elvis’ rhetoric proved to be a sufficiently effective part, albeit messy, to ultimately fit such a broad career. Whenever it lacks enough matter, it presents what it has in an energetic way.
The first half saw Luhrmann unhinged. If you’ve seen the Moulin Rouge or DiCaprio’s The Great Gatsby, you know what to expect: constant amplification, crazier transitions, and modern music from old times. At times annoying, the style does match the youthful vigor with which the young Elvis began his career. It was dissonant to hear modern music in the ’50s though, and as the sequence progressed, they started working concurrently with cinematography to build musical inspiration and so on. One obvious problem is that the script for this part feels like a series of bullet points, setting up Elvis’ family ties, film/music career, and conflict with state officials. The sequence feels sped up, pausing only for a minute to gain some intimacy, as if the movie is sprinting on a treadmill and taking a break. The first half was a lot of fun, especially seeing Elvis disobey the orders of a racist government. Emotional moments may carry more weight if given more time.
So the second half will do that, more focused on shorter time spans and greater cohesion. Luhrmann felt his style might not have worked for the older, more world-weary Elvis, but still shot scenes in a more dynamic way. Probably the best sequence is when Elvis goes against the Colonel’s plans for a Christmas special, leading to the release of “Why Can’t I Dream?” involves feeling out of the ’60s scene, going back and forth in pursuit of chaos and performance tension. Austin Butler perfectly captures pain, fear and terror, creating a character that is constantly being imitated and creating something so human. Living in such a fast-changing world and coming from a grim background, Butler brings with him Presley’s fear of getting lost in chaos, where he can’t get anything stable.
Whatever Elvis lacks in narrative originality, it more than makes up for in raw emotion and heartfelt storytelling. Even if I don’t embrace all creative options, I can at least respect them. I can’t call this a definitive account of Elvis’ life, but it’s a very dynamic story. In some ways, it suits Presley’s life: puzzling yet vaguely sad.