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The Crack Magazine



Director: Baz Luhrmann

Stars: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Yola, Richard Roxburgh, Helen Thomson

Ideally, Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann’s typically over-caffeinated but visually resplendent biopic of legendary rock 'n' roll singer Elvis Presley should be titled ‘Elvis and Tom’ as Presley’s notorious martinet manager Colonel Tom Parker is given equal screen time and gets to provide the narration.

The story zooms, not entirely coherently, through Presley’s early life, his childhood in Tupelo in a poor black neighbourhood, and the family move to Memphis where the young Elvis, spying on the local juke joint action cribs some moves from pioneering local rock 'n' roll singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by English artist Yola). These fevered and delirious depictions of African American life are nicely rendered, but sport a slightly icky ethnographic feel.

After he signs with Tom Parker (Hanks), who Luhrmann, ever the magpie maximalist compares to both Citizen Kane and Harry Lime, Presley joins a country music review where his gyrations cause a sensation with the female audience. As his reputation grows and record sales boom, the moral guardians and racists begin circling.  A panicked Parker ships Elvis off to the US army in order to clean up his image. While stationed in Germany Presley meets his future wife, Priscilla, played by Australian actor DeJonge in a frustratingly underwritten part.

In a cheeky move, Luhrmann covers Presley’s early to mid-sixties, variable, mostly bad, film career in one quick montage sequence, before landing on the pivotal 1968 TV Comeback Special. According to Luhrmann’s account, Parker is side-lined here, allowing Elvis to return to his more edgy rock 'n' roll roots to career-reviving effect. This act of rebellion proves short-lived however with the Mephistophelean manager, determined not to let his charge go on a world tour for reasons that become startlingly clear, committing Presley instead to a five years’ residency at Las Vegas.

This being Luhrmann, the picture is beautifully-mounted, particularly the Vegas scenes, unsurprising for the flash and glitz-obsessed director, but the script feels superficial and incurious. Butler is good, replicating Elvis’s pretty boy looks, but feels a bit anodyne and sexless, even with numerous shots of Elvis’s thrusting his crotch at his adoring audience. Hanks, in possibly his most misjudged performance to date, including Forrest Gump, and buried beneath tons of unconvincing makeup is so grotesquely over the top as grotesque mountebank Parker, that he nearly capsizes the project entirely. It’s a shame because the enigmatic, gaslighting Colonel was a genuinely compelling figure.

TL:DR: if you like Baz Luhrmann films you’ll probably like this; if you don’t you probably won’t.

Elvis is released on 24th June

David Willoughby

Follow David on Twitter @DWill_Crackfilm