The theme that runs through the film is the push and pull between Presley’s natural rebelliousness and Parker’s obsession with controlling and exploiting him. This is fair enough, as narrative threads go. But Luhrmann is so focused on Parker’s whiny and obnoxious self-justifications that no one else gets a look-in. Little Richard and BB King have insulting blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos, just to acknowledge Presley’s debt to black musicians. Presley’s backing band consists of ciphers. The hangers-on known as the Memphis Mafia all get their names on the screen, but none of them does or says anything. Even Elvis’s wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is reduced to sitting around, looking either adoring or sad, so if there was anything to distinguish her from all the young women who screamed at him, we’re none the wiser.
Worse still, Presley himself has so little depth that the film should probably be called “Tom” instead. Butler does an impressive job, especially during the ferocious concert scenes. His feverish hip-shaking and shadow-boxing are of Olympic standard, and when he flashes a smile at the audience, to let them know he is in on the joke, you can see why they adored him. But when Presley is off stage, Butler is stranded in an underwritten role, as if he is a guest star in someone else’s biopic. What did Presley think about music or life or his family and friends? What were his political convictions? Who was the man beneath the quiff? It’s possible that Luhrmann didn’t want to upset the singer’s estate, which authorised the film, because he seems to be careful of taking any stand that might be controversial. Instead, he spends close to three hours telling us that Presley did whatever Parker wanted, but only because that was what he wanted, too. He was addicted to drugs, but only because a doctor insisted he take them. The press mocked him for being bloated and fat, but he (or rather Butler) remained as slim and fresh-faced as ever. He led a tragic, empty life according to one closing scene, but a happy, fulfilled life according to another.
Elvis isn’t bad, but this is a film about one of the 20th Century’s most electrifying and controversial performers, and it’s made by one of cinema’s most irrepressible stylists. It really shouldn’t be as staid and cautious as this.
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