Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis loves sweat.
Early on, this sweat is sexual, a product of the muggy Memphis heat Elvis called home, within which he found inspiration, combined with the go-for-broke pelvic gyrations that caused a national sexual awakening so powerful the courts felt the need to get involved. The effort shown by a young Mr. Presley (Austin Butler) to break his Southern sound, a mix of white country music and Black rhythm and blues, is shown in mesmerizing detail. One of the film’s great accomplishments is managing to capture how just a wiggle of the hips could cause such a commotion despite the now quaint and obvious sexualization of pop icons.
Rows of hilariously horny young women rejecting polite, romantic behavior, screaming and throwing themselves at him, are intercut into the film’s chaotically choreographed performances. Here, Butler delivers on Elvis’ out-of-body energy and his complete control, a triumphant contradiction. The star, a relative up-and-comer thrown into portraying one of American culture’s most recognizable faces and voices, manages to show a bounty of charisma. He injects his earnest impersonation with a liveliness that most contemporary musical biopics tend to lack.
But eventually, the sweat starts to turn on the King and morphs into something far more sinister: a product of pure exhaustion. Elvis is run ragged like a prize racehorse by Colonel Tom Parker, his long-time manager, played here by Tom Hanks, who has prosthetically inflated his appearance and energetically inflated his performance to a degree where it sometimes feels like he is close to floating away from the screen and into a Roald Dahl adaptation where he would feel more of a piece. As the story’s narrator—and its confessor—Parker tells us how Elvis’ eventual death from exhaustion and substance abuse wasn’t a product of his guilting and overworking of Presley but of his undying love of performing and giving the people a show.
One can’t help but think how Lurhmann might see himself relative to Parker. He presents him as a showman whose greatest talent was injecting carnival-style razzle-dazzle to sell his product as larger-than-life inventions, accusations that have certainly been levied against the Australian auteur. Luhrmann has certainly never been accused of modesty and has spun two of English language literature’s most famous tales, Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby, into tales of the destructive power of whirlwind adoration in a mode that usually attracts accusations of gaudiness. In his way, Luhrmann is akin to an Elvis, a covers artist glamming up the songs that people already know. But his greatest talents as a director of energetic and entertaining films often seem to serve cautionary purposes within his own stories.
In its confusingly distanced understanding of Elvis as an American icon, Luhrmann’s film fails to fully cohere. For as much as it can try to show some of Parker’s attempts to distance him from his roots and Elvis’ genuine-seeming admiration for the tradition of Black music he grew up around and eventually co-opted into his own act, it has an uncomplicated relationship to Elvis’ place within those communities and musical traditions. Accusations of cultural appropriation are swept aside to portray him as Prometheus, bringing the fire of rhythm and blues to the white masses and roguishly accepting the outlaw nature that came with being seen as a Black sympathizer in the segregated South. Most Black characters in the film are great musical figures like B.B. King or Little Richard, showing up to confirm Elvis’ taste and talent. That may have been good and true, but I can’t help but side-eye the film’s constant effort to assure us that Elvis was invited to the cookout.
Elvis‘ strengths and weaknesses are complementary. It’s a superficial look at the man as the film is more interested in him as a cultural icon and stand-in for other famous performers. “A genuine artist and showman corrupted by nefarious managers and business interests” is well-worn, exhausted territory. But the film tries to show just how exhausting it all is so that by the time the movie is approaching its conclusion, you are beaten down by just how loud, fast and extravagant it all was. You do arrive at a place where you feel bad for one of the most famous and iconic men of the 20th century, sweating his butt off on stage for an audience that seems increasingly disconnected from the sexual appeal of the sweat of his younger days. Maybe there is some depth or substance that the movie fails to mine, but with Luhrmann and a largely covers-based artist like Elvis, the substance has always been in the style.