“Elvis” review: How a straight man achieved high camp


Courtesy of IMDb

Oliver Parker, Contributing Writer

I have seen Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” six times. Four of the six were in theaters. Even after six times, I cannot fully comprehend the way I feel about this film. I hope it sweeps at the Academy Awards.

“Elvis” is a standard biopic that seeks to tell a comprehensive history of Elvis Presley in a reasonable runtime for a single film, and clocking in at 159 minutes, some would say it achieves that. Starting from his humble Tupelo beginnings all the way through his final performance in Las Vegas, the film is filled with cross cuts, split screens, and a recurring computer-generated ELVIS marquee. With the exception of “Skinamarink” and “Climax”, this film may be the most exhausting and migraine-inducing one to be released in the past ten years.. This film is unashamed and unforgiving in its opulence and excess. Luhrmann forces his audience to sit in its ridiculousness, and the more I think about this movie, the further convinced I become that it is perfect.

The first time I saw “Elvis”, I decided I did not like it. Even now, a major problem I have with this film is the narrative it pushes that Elvis was a civil rights icon and that his long track record of stealing songs from Black artists was actually doing them a favor as it was a token of his appreciation for Black people and everyone was super okay with it. I don’t think I have to explain how bizarre this is, especially considering it is an invention for the film alone. Through the first and second acts of this film, B.B. King serves as a confidant and best friend to Elvis with little to no basis in reality and no character development of his own. There is also an otherwise really phenomenal scene of Little Richard, played by Alton Mason, performing “Tutti Frutti” in a Beale Street club. Elvis watches and, out loud, decides that he won’t steal this song from Little Richard even though his friends, who are Black, suggest that he does. It’s just a strange narrative to push because it never actually amounts to anything, and it’s something that carries through the first act and about halfway through the second act. But after Elvis goes to Vegas, we don’t see a Black character again. This is the only thing that keeps the film from being a 10/10 for me.

After my third time watching “Elvis,” things started to change for me. At first, it was hard to respect how technically outrageous this film is with its insane cuts and 60 frames per second, but Elvis Presley is a ridiculous person. There is no other way to make a movie about Elvis Presley. This was a critical thought on my journey to accepting “Elvis” as a masterpiece. Even knowing that I still had a hard time getting behind some of the performances in this film. Austin Butler is as phenomenal as Elvis. He strikes a perfect balance between honoring the absurdness of Elvis but also being the emotional core that the film needs to ground itself in something real. Up until the most recent “Elvis” rewatch, Tom Hanks’s performance as Colonel Tom Parker was vile and repugnant. He lumbers around this film in a fat suit doing what Letterboxd user megbitchell describes as an Eric Cartman impression and delivering one of the most insane movie villain performances of all time. It is very evident that much of Hanks’s dialogue is automated dialogue replacement because the fat suit he wears restricts the movement of his mouth, and they did not try very hard to make it look even remotely like the on-set dialogue was being delivered. He chews the scenery in this movie harder than the great Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest”, and he deserves nothing but applause for it. Even though it took eighteen hours of my life before I realized it, Tom Hanks’s performance is brilliant. I think it has a very understated sense of self-awareness that one can only catch after you let your walls down and surrender yourself to Baz Luhrmann’s maximalist wiles.

“Elvis” is classic Baz Luhrmann, which is certainly not for everyone (myself included), but this time, the source material is actually ridiculous enough to justify Luhrmann’s direction. His other films like “The Great Gatsby”, “Moulin Rouge”, and “Romeo + Juliet” all scratch at the surface of achieving true camp, but they always miss the mark. In the cases of “The Great Gatsby” and “Romeo and Juliet”, they missed the mark because of a lack of sincerity in approaching the source material. They go too far in its pastiche that it becomes disingenuous. As for “Moulin Rouge”, as incredible as Nicole Kidman may be, the film is not grounded. It is aggressively postmodern to the point of incomprehensibility. But in “Elvis”, Luhrmann strikes a very delicate balance in which it’s clear that he has a lot of respect for the real Elvis Presley. His direction of Austin Butler combined with Butler being a stellar performer already gives the film the foundation it needs to get outrageous anyway.

Elvis achieves something that has never been done before: a straight man has knowingly achieved high camp. I hope it wins “Best Picture”. 

“Elvis” is now available on HBO Max.

Illustration by Ariel Landry
Illustration by Ariel Landry