Review: Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ too stylish for its own good

Austin Butler in Elvis (Warner Bros.)

Director Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is too much in both good and bad ways.

The new film that features an uncanny and perhaps Oscar-nomination worthy performance by Austin Butler as Elvis Presley is exhilarating but also exhausting with a more than two-and-a-half hour running time that still only skims over the ground-breaking yet heart-wrenching career of the The King of Rock and Roll.

Luhrmann’s film is bound to be divisive, thrilling some while leaving others scratching their heads. The film is campy, but let’s face it, Elvis’ life once he reached superstardom was as outlandish and flamboyant as a Mississippi boy raised in Memphis could possibly imagine.

The ambitious movie spins around the relationship between Presley and his shyster manager Col. Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. The tale might remind you a bit of the folk story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” as the shrewd Parker makes Elvis’ dreams come true but at a grand cost.

Hanks is a fantastic actor, but the accent he affects as Parker, who was Dutch, is grating and almost cartoonish and a very odd choice for the narrator of the film. His portrayal is effective, though. You come away detesting the Colonel and the way he robbed and drove Elvis into the ground, all too literally.

The film covers many of the major bits of Elvis life from growing up poor, catapulting to controversial stardom as “a white boy singing black music,” to his military and film career, his Las Vegas stage show and the sad end of his career as well as all the excess in between that left him a corpse on the bathroom floor of his Memphis mansion, Graceland, in August of 1977. Thankfully, the movie opts out of detailing that last part.

Luhrmann, who’s dizzying style can be hit or miss, might thrill and excite you in this tale of excess, or it might wear you down. The movie isn’t meat to be a factual documentary, but rather a spiritual experience of sorts, and Luhrmann takes plenty of liberties as most biopics do.

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in Elvis (Warner Bros.)

Butler is fantastic in the film, making Elvis a figure of admiration, adulation but more importantly pity as he becomes trapped in a spiraling funhouse world that he’s ironically complicit in creating by ceding too much trust in Parker.

What I enjoyed most in the film was the music, and some of the history of the music industry the film touches on. Butler does most of Presley’s singing until late in the film, and he does an excellent job. This movie is bound to make him a star even if reviews wind up being mixed on the film itself. His charisma is undeniable.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but I’ve always had an affinity for Elvis from growing up near Memphis and remembering the latter years of his career and especially the news coverage of his death.

The movie, though, is more flash than substance in many ways because of its broad scope, and many of Luhrmann’s artistic choices seem odd rather than evocative of Elvis and his legend. But there is no denying the energy of the film, particularly as it covers the early portion of Elvis’ life and career.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 39 min.
Grade: B-

New in Local Theaters

Elvis (PG-13) 2 hr. 39 min. (trailer)
AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

The Black Phone (R) 1 hr. 43 min. (trailer)
AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne

The Phantom of the Open (PG-13) 1 hr. 46 min. (trailer)
AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle

Jugjugg Jeeyo (NR) 2 hr. 30 min. (trailer)
AMC Fiesta Square

Classic Corner – The Fifth Element

Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element (Gaumont)

Luc Besson’s sci-fi/adventure cult classic “The Fifth Element” returns to the big screen for special showings at 3 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Malco Razorback Cinema.

The movie is partially inspired by the work of French cartoonists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Jean-Claude Mezieres. Besson (“La Femme Nikita” and “Leon: The Professional”) began work on the script when he was 16, but it took him 20 years to see the movie come to fruition.

The film stars Bruce Willis as futuristic taxicab driver and former special forces soldier Korben Dallas, who is taxed with helping save the Earth along with Leeloo, a clone of an ancient space traveler, who is the fifth element of the film’s title.

Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is a powerful humanoid weapon, destined to confront an ancient evil capable of destroying the world. It’s the first of many genre films starring Jovovich, and while “The Fifth Element” might not be her best performance overall, it might be her best film.

The movie is weird, wild, action-packed, and funny. It’s my favorite film of Besson’s and features a solid performance by Willis when he was still at or near the top of his game as an action-film star. The plot is convoluted, but in a good way that keeps you guessing until the climax when all becomes clear.

Gary Oldman turns in an over-the-top but highly entertaining performance as the villain Zorg, and the film features a hilarious performance by Chris Tucker as the androgynous Ruby Rhod, just before his star began to rise in Hollywood.

The movie has a distinct European flavor that’s all together different from most American sci-fi, which often takes its cue from Westerns. The movie is beautifully shot by Thierry Arbogast and features outstanding production and creature designs and special effects that make a huge splash on the big screen .

Classic Corner – GI Joe: The Movie


As a teen in the 1980s, I was too old to play with the second wave of G.I. Joe actions figures and watch the syndicated cartoon show developed to advertise the toy line.

However, I did have a nephew who was the perfect age for the toys and the show, and being the great uncle that I was, I bought him more than a few of the actions figures and vehicles, and admittedly had a fun time watching him play with them. I may have even gotten on the floor and played with him a few times.

About 15 years later, his dad and mom partially blamed me for stoking his interest in the military when he joined the U.S. Navy the very day after his took his last final exam at University of Arkansas. Today he’s got about a year and half to go before he can retire as a warrant officer. Yes, he switched from the Navy to the Army fairly early in his career.

So why the trip down memory lane in this movie column?

Well, the animated “G.I. Joe: The Movie” is celebrating its 35th anniversary this month, and at 1 p.m. Saturday, the Malco Razorback Cinema is holding a special screening of the feature that spun out of the popular TV show.

The movie starred a host of the fun G.I. Joe characters from the TV show like Gung-Ho, Destro, Scarlet, Lady Jaye, Cobra Commander, Gen. Hawk, Snow Job, Serpentor, and a dozen or so others.

The movie was originally intended to be released in theaters in 1987, but when the animated “The Transformers The Movie” flopped at the box office, “G.I. Movie” went direct to video and was aired in syndication before being split into five episodes of the “G.I. Joe” syndicated cartoon package.

In recent years, Hasbro has released new versions of the G.I. Joe figures both for collectors and kids who just like to play with them.

The screening, which will include additional material, sounds like a perfect opportunity for dads, granddads, and uncles who enjoyed the TV show when they were younger to introduce their children in their lives to the movie and characters.