‘Elvis’ hails the King in lush Baz Luhrmann style



Rated PG-13. At AMC Boston Common, Regal Fenway, AMC South Bay and suburban theaters.

Grade B+

The “Elvis” biopic from Baz Luhrmann, master of frothy superficiality, transforms the story of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll into a buzzy, pop soap opera about the artist’s rise and fall. The film makes Presley’s cultural appropriation of Black music, fashion and performance style into a good thing, even if in some ways it was. Like all of Luhrmann’s films, including “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby,” Lurhmann cuts every five seconds or so, and in this case adds split-screen visuals to the dizzying, effervescent action. In an early sequence, Elvis the boy hears Arthur Crudup sing “That’s All Right Mama” at a dive bar and then goes to a nearby Black revival service, where he is welcomed as a blessed child and has a religious experience listening to the music in the tent.

The bedazzled film begins with the weird Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in a false nose and latex suit) inviting us to the “Snowman’s League” and “Cotton Candy Land.” We hear Elvis’s 1969 hit “Suspicious Minds” and the theme of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In a shot evoking “The Shining,” the Colonel wanders alone in a Las Vegas casino. In the 1950s, music promoter Parker looks for something new and hears Elvis (Austin Butler, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) singing Crudup’s song on a record and stops dead when he is told that the artist is a young white man.

“He’s whi-i-i-i-te?” Parker murmurs rapturously as if he has discovered El Dorado. This is the film’s eureka moment. Parker meets Elvis’s religious family and his perhaps too devoted mother Gladys (Helen Thomson). He learns of Presley’s dead twin brother. We are shown Elvis’s friendships with performers on Beale Street in Memphis such as B.B. King (Kevin Harrison Jr.). Parker doesn’t know what to make of Elvis’s “greasy hair and girly makeup.” But when Elvis starts to sing and swivel those hips, Parker sees the young women and some young men in the audience experience paroxysms of sexual ecstasy. Some even scream. Thus, Elvis the Pelvis is unleashed on an unsuspecting, white, conservative world.

Co-written by Luhrmann, frequent Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce with Sam Bromell and Jeremy Doner, “Elvis” aspires to be a rock ’n’ roll “Faust.” Parker, who speaks with a squeaky Dutch accent, has mysterious origins. He may not have a passport, which explains his forbidding Elvis to tour overseas. But he promises Presley riches in record contracts, TV shows and even Hollywood, where Presley stars in many hit films.

At first, Presley is threatened with arrest for his “indecent” public behavior. Parker tries to rein him in. Elvis gets drafted, and while in the Army meets his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu (Melbourne-born Olivia DeJonge), in West Germany. A rehabilitated Elvis returns to the concert scene. Vietnam and Beatlemania cause seismic shifts in youth culture. Martin Luther King is killed. Elvis gets hooked on pills. With its riches and depravity, Las Vegas beckons, a neon graveyard. Where are the fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches?

At two hours and 39 minutes, “Elvis” is too long. But Butler, who sings the early songs and whose voice is blended with Presley’s later in the story, eerily captures Elvis’s essence, his physical beauty and acrobatic dance moves. The actor’s career is going to get a deserved big bounce. The acting by the entire cast is good, if not great. “Elvis” isn’t perfect. But we can’t help falling, well, you know.

(“Elvis” contains profanity, mature themes and suggestive scenes.)

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