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Baz Luhrmann's gaudy 'Elvis' is a shapeless blur of a musical biopic

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Baz Luhrmann, the director of such razzle dazzle, entertaining films as "Moulin Rouge" and "The Great Gatsby," takes on the life and career of Elvis Presley in the new musical biopic "Elvis." Opening in theaters this week, the movie stars Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There may be a great movie hiding somewhere within the gaudy two-hour-and-39-minute sprawl of Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis," but it's buried under an awful lot of clutter. It's not that I mind Luhrmann's famous lack of subtlety. When you're dramatizing a figure as endlessly mythologized as Elvis Presley, subtlety isn't really the point. And at times, the director's flamboyant excesses feel in line with Elvis's own. It helps that Luhrmann has a solid star in Austin Butler, who may bear an iffy physical resemblance to Presley, but does a fine approximation of his wide ranging voice and swaggering dance moves. But as good as he sounds when he's covering "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Heartbreak Hotel," Butler's Elvis is continually upstaged, and not just by the movie's bombastic style.

Luhrmann, one of the four credited screenwriters, makes the odd decision to tell the story from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, the Dutch-born impresario who becomes Presley's notoriously ruthless manager. He's played by an uncharacteristically grating Tom Hanks, wearing a fat suit and prosthetic jowls and jabbering in an over-the-top accent. In this early scene, set aboard a carnival Ferris wheel sometime during the 1950s, Parker tells Elvis that he's going to be a huge star, but only on one condition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELVIS")

TOM HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) Your future, Mr. Presley, blaging before you - recording contracts, television, even Hollywood.

AUSTIN BUTLER: (As Elvis Presley) You're great, Colonel. You are the best person I could ever hope to work with. You know, this is something I ain't never said to nobody before. I believe I can be great, too.

HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) Oh, no doubt. But we could be even greater together. But to achieve this, I need to represent you exclusively.

BUTLER: (As Elvis Presley) Exclusively. Sir, I don't follow. What about Hank Snow?

HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) Hank, yes. He sent me here to fire you. Hank wants you off the tour, so I will have to leave Hank. We will both have to make sacrifices.

CHANG: Hank Snow, the popular country singer who helped discover Presley, is one of several formative figures who pop up early on. We see Elvis as a young boy in Tupelo, Miss., where he spends time in Black churches and experiences a spiritual and musical epiphany. To its credit, the movie acknowledges the Black musicians like B.B. King, Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton who influenced Presley. But Luhrmann's filmmaking is finally too broad in its strokes to really tackle Elvis's much-contested legacy as a white musician who helped sell Black music to white audiences.

Where the movie does succeed - and it's no small thing - is in conveying what an exhilarating performer Presley was. When a still-unknown Elvis performs "Baby Let's Play House" on stage, the movie lingers on. The young women in the audience screaming and swooning in ecstasy. Parker and others later try to keep Elvis's gyrating pelvis in line by enforcing a no-wiggle rule at concerts, to no avail. Luhrmann piles on the visual flourishes, sometimes rendering the performance footage in sizzling black and white, and sometimes splitting the screen into as many as eight separate images. It's overkill, no question, but it also has an undeniable verve.

As usual, though, Luhrmann's flair for spectacle tends to overwhelm his basic story sense. Much of the movie rushes past in a shapeless blur. And while Butler's performance has its poignant moments, there's too little sense of the human being beneath the slick hair and zany suits. The workmanlike script lurches between high points and low points with little connective tissue. Elvis's mostly undistinguished movie career is quickly glossed over. Olivia De Jonge makes a striking Priscilla Presley, but nothing about their unhappy marriage feels distinct from all the unhappy marriages that we've seen in countless other celebrity biopics.

Through it all, Colonel Parker keeps plodding behind the scenes, manipulating Elvis's image at will, and ultimately scoring him a lucrative berth at Las Vegas's new International Hotel in 1969. Elvis will remain a fixture of the hotel for the next seven years, performing show after sold-out show until just a year before his death. During that time, he gradually wastes away, ravaged by addiction, haunted by his failures as a husband and father, and exploited at every turn by a manager he can't shake off no matter how hard he tries.

There's a lot here for Elvis experts to debate and debunk, but however much historical truth there is in Luhrmann's film, there's no mistaking his anger at Parker for using Elvis's massive fame to pay off his many gambling debts and fund his extravagant lifestyle. Luhrmann's portrait of Parker is damning, but it also distracts from the story he's trying to tell. The tragedy of Elvis is that he never breaks free of Colonel Parker, the tragedy of "Elvis," the movie, is that it never does either.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Elvis," directed by Baz Luhrmann. On Monday's show, comedian, actor and writer Joel Kim Booster. He wrote and stars in the romantic comedy "Fire Island," which is now streaming on Hulu. He has a new comedy special on Netflix called "Psychosexual," and he co-stars with Maya Rudolph in the new Apple TV+ series "Loot." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL SHOOK UP")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, bless my soul. What's wrong with me? I'm itching like a man in a fuzzy tree. My friends say I'm acting wild as a bug. I'm in love. I'm all shook up. (Vocalizing).

DAVIES: Our senior producer today is Heidi Saman. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave DAVIES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.