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Directed by Baz Luhrmann

(Warner Brothers, 2022)

Review by Carol Leeming


I am a lover of camp, glamour, bling and artifice; those who know me say I am a glamazon. I therefore thoroughly enjoyed two of Baz Luhrmann’s previous films, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo and Juliet. However, Baz makes a serious misstep with his recent Elvis biopic which promised so much. A hook for me to watch the film was the cast of Black actors as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Arthur Crudup, Big Maybelle Thornton and BB King. Veritable legends of African American music, bona fide innovators who eventually conquered and completely changed the music world. I was expecting a feast of fabulous music and real drama in regard to these Black characters, imagining them as an important part of the film’s storytelling. Overall, the film turned out to be a rather unsatisfying rollercoaster ride through Elvis’s life. We learn very little that is new from this biopic of two disparate halves.

After a stunningly, appropriately flashy opening of Warner Brothers credits, a sinking feeling took me over, and never really left. The film is narrated from the point of view of Elvis’s manager Colonel Parker, played underwhelmingly by Tom Hanks, in flashback from his hospital deathbed. The Colonel, an individual by all accounts exploitative and controlling, and a profligate gambler, interrupts rather than assists the narrative. We do not care at all about the Colonel as Tom Hanks wrestles with facial and bodily prosthetics and an off-putting Dutch accent, all of which proves wearisome.

Prior to watching the film, it was tantalising to hear about the Black actors’ meticulous preparation for their respective roles. Only to find, disappointingly, their characters are used as ciphers – they sing, dance (blink and you may miss it) and only one has any lines. The first half of the film sweeps through Elvis’s growing up in the segregated South with Black cultural and musical influences. Crassly presented, I think, these influences conflate the ‘profane’ juke joint with the ‘sacred’ Black church – as, for example, when Elvis as boy, gets the spirit and is literally lifted up by Black folks (a heavyhanded metaphor for his later success?). As a consequence, the Black Saviour and White Saviour figures (Elvis helped Black musicians despite copying them persistently) are both present. Both of these being clichéd tropes, well past their sell-by date. The film’s second half misses out lots of Elvis’s life. The role of Priscilla Presley, not wholly credible given the casting – teenager to adult wife with no discernible change in look – also provides very little actual material to go on. A real delight, though, a highlight, providing much excitement for me, were the Las Vegas scenes, with wonderful costumes, skilful cinematography and social historical context using archive and filmed material cut together.

This film is, in part, Elvis hagiography, myth-making by Baz Luhrmann, with popular Elvis songs covered by easily forgettable, contemporary artists who have been shoehorned in. A final touch, which sums up Luhrmann’s unsure footing in this film, is the reprise of the African American spiritual ‘Motherless Child’ to inject pathos into the scene of Elvis’s grief at losing his mother. The use of this song really grated for me. There can be no equivalence between the suffering of a whole people in chattel slavery and that of an individual losing a loved parent.