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Elvis

Year: 2022
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Producer: Baz Luhrmann/Catherine Martin
Writer: Baz Luhrmann/Sam Bromell/Craig Pearce/Jeremy Doner
Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey, Dacre Montgomery, Xavier Samuel

Baz Luhrmann and Michael Bay might seem polar opposites because of the genres they mostly inhabit, but like Bay does with cuts, explosions and movement, Luhrmann does with costumes, colours, music and – much like Bay, actually – movement. It's filmmaking with an excess of style, occasionally threatening to overshadow the story.

A biopic about Elvis Presley is actually tailor made for Luhrmann's taste, and not just because of gaudy, eagle-studded outfits covered in rhinestones and sequins, the electric Las Vegas strip or the stagecraft of musical performance in all his movies.

He actually infuses every facet of the famed singer's life with verve and vigour – even when dealing with his impoverished early life in Tennessee among the travelling carnivals and blues singers that dotted the post-depression landscape.

In fact, as well as the onscreen flourishes in everything from camerawork to design, the chronology itself is a zany tone poem, as much a tribute to what Elvis' music changed about the world as much as his story.

The self-styled Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, complete with fat suit and silly accent) is a carnival huckster always looking for a new angle, and when he hears the new record all the kids are talking about on the radio, he seeks out the young man who recorded it, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler, who – to a non obsessive like me – seemed to capture The King pretty well), going to one of his local shows.

After watching the kid shake almost uncontrollably as he gets into the groove at the back of the theatre with his band, finding rhythms and steeling himself for his infamous dancing, Parker witnesses something inside the show neither he nor anyone else has seen before.

The raw sexuality of the swinging, thrusting hips sends the girls of the audience into screaming fainting fits, lightning in a bottle Parker knows the world will love – and that he wants to control and profit from.

The naive young man has no chance against the slick tongued snake oil salesman with his talk of stardom, riches and hordes of screaming fans and as history proved, Elvis was soon somewhere beyond stardom thanks to Parker's stewardship, he was an institution.

The conflict as Elvis' star rises is about how his Svengali manager tries to mould him into a shape the script co-written by Luhrmann claims he never wanted, of a family-friendly performer wearing cheesy sweaters on TV Christmas specials and doing one dreadful Hollywood musical after another.

He organised the Elvis industry of tatty merch, dictated venues and musical styles and influenced the young star's career and persona including his military service in Germany and his marriage to Priscilla, all while taking as much as half Presley's money.

Eventually, as told in the film, Elvis decides he's had enough. The swinging hips music that has girls fainting is the real him, and even Parker seems to have forgotten where the real magic came from in the beginning, trying to stage manage Elvis against the early legal and media scandals about his music corrupting youth.

The tragedy of the tale is that Elvis almost breaks away several times, including a period right before the Vegas years when Parker had lost all his sway over him. The way the movie tells it, Parker outflanked and outsmarted the younger man by tricking him into thinking he owed Parker a fortune and promising he'd organise international tours, all with no intention of doing so.

The pinnacle of his evil comes in a scene where he's meeting the managers of the casino where Elvis has a residency, promising them years of exclusive performance by the singer in exchange for the cancellation of all Parker's gambling debts and an unlimited line of credit. It's said Parker himself could never leave the US because he was undocumented, and that having Elvis anywhere but under his direct influence would undermine his control.

The movie hints at that, but don't take everything on screen as gospel. Like all Luhrmann's films it's a fairy tale, not a gritty biopic. But that doesn't mean it's not a sad story, Elvis never even travelling outside the US again, let alone to perform, getting addicted to food and pills as a way of masking how trapped he felt and dying 20 years before Parker, barely into his 40s.

Whether you love his style or hate it, and whether the stories that interest him grab you or not, there's no disputing Luhrmann's talent as a director, with such a handle on so many chaotic and seemingly conflicting elements and creative motifs it's a barely coherent – if thrilling – cacophony at times.

There's just one element that didn't work, ironically considering his usual talent – Tom Hanks, whose depiction of Parker I never got a handle on. Was he a doltish, opportunistic blowhard? A cunning, cutthroat snake? And, considering the real Parker was Dutch, where exactly was that accent supposed to be from?

I was in Brisbane when production shut down in early 2020 because Hanks and Rita Wilson abruptly contracted COVID just when the pandemic was starting to really spread and I felt awful for them along with terrified for the rest of us. If you ever read this, Tom, I wish it had been better a better role and better acting you sacrificed so much for.

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