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Elvis and the trouble with musician biopics

Baz Luhrmann’s movie about The King belly-flops, but in an interesting way.

A close-up on Austin Butler’s face.
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Elvis.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis isn’t merely a confounding movie. It provokes a very particular kind of bafflement: You know you’ve watched a whole big spangly movie about a very famous guy, but you’re not exactly sure why.

One could say the reason is simply that its ostensible subject is, well, Elvis. The Elvis. The King. Everybody loves Elvis, or at least knows his songs. Of course he deserves a movie.

But the musician biopic — like its cousins, the historical figure biopic and the based-on-a-true-story drama — needs more than just a set of facts and a bunch of built-in fans to justify its existence. To put it in terms used by nonfiction writers, the events of Elvis’s life are merely the situation; what a good movie tries to do is find the story inside that situation. As I wrote last year, “That many rockers and singers have similar life stories isn’t surprising; what’s frustrating is the tendency to put a person’s true-life events in chronological order and assume that it makes a good story.” A great biopic doesn’t just remind us of what happened in someone’s life and the order in which it all happened. It provides new insight into its subject or uses them as a way to touch on bigger themes.

Makers of musician movies have been trying to figure out how to do this for a while, with some success. The deeply weird and wonderful 2007 Bob Dylan film I’m Not There explores its subject’s many personas by casting six different actors (including Cate Blanchett and young Black actor Marcus Carl Franklin) as the singer. Rocketman, the 2019 Elton John movie, is at its heart a story about how friendship can save us from our worst demons. My favorite, the 2014 movie Love and Mercy, about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, delves into the ways youthful trauma persists into the present; it accomplished this by flipping back and forth through time, with John Cusack and Paul Dano portraying Wilson in different eras.

All three succeed by breaking out of the trope-laden mold skewered by the (terrific) 2007 satire Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which in turn was mostly lampooning the (very good) 2005 Oscar-winning Johnny Cash movie Walk the Line. Rocketman, in particular, manages to be great precisely because it disregards the slavish devotion to chronology of some biographical movies. Instead of being a movie about Elton John’s life, it’s a jukebox musical about him, songs thrown willy-nilly into the story wherever they fit the narrative, instead of being forced to appear only in the periods in which he’s written them.

(You may be wondering, where is Bohemian Rhapsody in this list? We do not speak of Bohemian Rhapsody.)

When Elvis succeeds, it’s for two reasons. The greatest is that Austin Butler, who plays The King, is spectacular in the role: electric, vulnerable, innocent, seductive, and everything else he needs to be to capture the appeal of the man who rocked America to its core. (He sings all of Elvis’s early music himself; for Presley’s later years, their voices are blended together.) You might leave Elvis scratching your head, but not about what made its subject so magnetic.

In a pink and black tux, Elvis plays a guitar onstage.
Austin Butler as Elvis in Elvis.
Warner Bros.

The other reason is that, in typical Luhrmann style, Elvis is propelled forward — almost maniacally so — by Presley’s music, both in performance and as covers from contemporary artists ranging from Eminem and Stevie Nicks to Doja Cat and Kacey Musgraves. Often they’re used in the style of a stage musical, as when Presley, not yet aware he’s been signed by his manager to a five-year Las Vegas contract, is performing “Suspicious Minds” on stage in the same room. “I’m caught in a trap / I can’t walk out / Because I love you …” he croons, over and over, in a very literal description of what’s actually happening.

The relentless music makes the whole thing feel like a montage, and it gets exhausting after a while; I saw it twice and my head was pounding by the end both times. But it’s infectious. As with Rocketman, Presley’s music is part of the storytelling, not merely an excuse to groove in your seat to some familiar tunes.

Still, weird choices were made in this film. Presley’s conniving manager, the expert “snowman” (a.k.a. con man) Col. Tom Parker, played by a prostheticized Tom Hanks, is also the narrator of the story. After Presley’s death, he was revealed to have bilked the singer out of huge portions of his money, though he insists to us that he earned every bit of it, that we wouldn’t even have Elvis Presley if it weren’t for him. Which, in a sense, might be true.

That makes Parker, not Presley, the deliberate framing device for the movie. We’d hope that Parker’s viewpoint would furnish a new or useful angle for this look into Presley’s life and, perhaps, for his perspective to be unreliable. He is, after all, a liar.

An image of Tom Hanks, in prosthetics and a cowboy cap, as an older man.
Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker in Elvis.
Warner Bros.

But his story keeps tripping over its toes. I’m not really sure what Parker is doing in the narrator’s seat. He only brings to it a cynical tone, perhaps inadvertently but not at all incorrectly. Elvis sometimes zeroes in on the rise of American celebrity (with its merchandising, its corporate sponsorship, its raving and toxic fans) and how it wrings real people dry. Parker’s main genius was in finding ways to leverage Elvis’s image and notoriety for money — selling, for instance, “I Hate Elvis” buttons, because if you’re going to have haters, you might as well monetize them.

Parker contends repeatedly to us in the audience — he addresses “you” repeatedly, he’s talking to me and you — that we are the problem. We wanted more Elvis. We wanted a particular Elvis. We lusted after him. He needed our lust, our love, and that’s what drove him to an early grave.

That’s a strong theme, but it’s muddled in its execution. For one, the moments we become aware that Parker is a bit of an unreliable narrator are when the movie shows him doing what he accuses us of doing: wanting to squeeze every drop of cash out of Elvis, making him feel loved so he’ll give him what he wants, and, at times, looking at him with a look of undisguised lust (even if it’s money lust). That blunts the edge of the point he’s apparently trying to make — not that he seems to care.

But our narrator often disappears for long stretches — a relief, since we can focus on Butler’s spectacular performance, but confusing in the scheme of the movie. And the film constantly elides basic biographical details about its title subject’s life, from which movies he starred in to Priscilla Presley’s extreme youth when they first got together to how things went wrong in various aspects of his career, especially toward the end. It’s not necessary to cram them all in, but if you’re going to blow through big gaps in the tale, it should be to further the grand narrative, and it’s not clear this movie does.

In a leather jumpsuit, surrounded by adoring girls, Elvis sings into the mic.
Austin Butler as Elvis.
Warner Bros.

More importantly, other themes resurface pointedly and without a lot of structural logic. Parker is a traditionalist, a man who hates those “long-hair” hippies that protest wars and make social statements; Presley is a soft-hearted man who’s aware of his music’s roots in the Black culture he grew up around and mourns when Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. (Presley’s use of Black styles and songs, which morphed into global hits mostly because he was white, is a prominent feature in the movie, though this movie isn’t out to examine it too closely.) The battle of generations in rock ’n’ roll becomes a theme, as does the complicated interweaving of cultures in America that goes on today; refer, once again, to the list of artists contributing to the soundtrack.

But through it all, Elvis himself remains a somewhat opaque figure, and the movie’s greatest weakness is that, behind the voice and the gyrating pelvis and the spangles and the sweat, it isn’t all that interested in him. There’s no great insight into his life to be found. Elvis feeds into the phenomenon it points to: He’s mostly an icon, a face, a thing to be admired and lusted after, and not really much of a human being.

And yet, it’s worth putting Elvis, the movie, into that slowly growing list of musician biopics that try in some way to buck the long history of ploddingly literal, chronology-driven historical storytelling. The thing about well-worn tropes is that we can get too used to them, too reliant upon them. The musician biopic isn’t even a genre — you could make one that’s a drama, or a comedy, or a mystery, or even horror, as Elvis sometimes seems to be — but it feels like one because of the tired old story beats involved.

So unsettling those tropes, placing the biography into a new setting and using the music in innovative ways, is a bold and wise move for a filmmaker who wants to make waves. Luhrmann has never shied away from making those bold choices. He even bedazzles the Warner Bros. logo that introduces the film, then brings us into the story with operatic musical cues that feel stolen from Wagner.

With Elvis, though, he hasn’t found the heart of the story, distracted by the shiny objects everywhere and the need to generate spectacle. In its better moments, this tendency is exactly what his movie deplores, or at least sees as inhumane. Elvis Presley deserves a great biographical film that imagines his life through a lens as revolutionary and shocking as he was. Elvis isn’t it. But The King will endure to see another day.

Elvis premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and is playing in theaters.

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