Besides being an uproariously funny film, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is a piercing parody of the celebrity musician biopic, ribbing the rags to riches, ruination, and finally redemption formula found in “Walk the Line,” “Ray,” “Respect,” and innumerable other genre pics. It lampoons an effective yet straightforward narrative approach that makes for serviceable but not necessarily transcendent cinema.
Anything the least bit straightforward is the last thing expected from a Baz Luhrmann film, particularly about a subject as iconic and impactful as Elvis Presley. “Elvis,” the Australian director’s first feature film since 2013’s “The Great Gatsby,” is an immersive, bombastic fever dream that relentlessly conveys Presley’s immense talent, audacity, and cultural complexity. Yet while the film is sensorily splendiferous, it is also narratively unambitious, from its linear approach to its framing device. Luhrmann offers a terrific hagiography that, given the filmmakers’ aesthetic, also feels like a missed opportunity.
“Elvis” is cursorily rendered from the perspective of an aging Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Presley’s longtime and (in)famous manager, while on his deathbed. It is a half-hearted perspective held together by an even more regrettable reliance on the Dutch-born Parker’s clipped voiceover narration throughout the film. Still, while Hanks is not the showy headliner, his performance ably marries Parker’s charming whimsy with his endemic deceit.
The film’s chapters open with Parker’s discovery of Presley (Austin Butler) while managing a 1950s circus and Hank Snow roadshow. Sporting a pink suit, pout, and pompadour, Presley’s powerhouse voice and hip gyrations transform as an audience of proper Southern Belles into an orgasmic throng, overtaken by impulses even they do not seem to grasp, to the visible reproval of their men. It is the film’s most audacious and breathtaking scene, a peek at Luhrman’s storytelling aplomb.
The screenplay by Luhrman and Jeremy Doner settles longtime accusations of cultural appropriation by presenting Presley as a product and ally of his hometown black community in Tupelo, Mississippi, from its clubs to its churches. It shows Presley as reverential of rhythm and blues and holding sincere friendships with Memphis contemporaries like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey), and Little Richard (Alton Mason), who see in Presley a white man who can take their music further than they will ever be allowed. It is here that Luhrman also briefly blends classic soul with hints of modern Hip Hop, evoking his approach to the soundtrack for “Moulin Rouge!”
Parker is credited with elevating Presley from a regional sensation to international acclaim, brokering his record deal with RCA Victor in 1955. From there, “Elvis” dutifully proceeds through Presley’s run-ins with the moral police and Parker’s consequential effort to transform Presley into an All-American boy, including enlisting in the Army, his marriage to Priscilla Wagner (Olivia DeJonge), and a string of popular but milquetoast movie projects.
Beginning with his 1968 TV comeback special, Presley forces his way back onto the stage, a move that a disapproving Parker eventually parlays to his financial benefit. It proves a Faustian bargain that allows Presley to return to acclaim and his musical roots, but at the expense of an increasingly shopworn Las Vegas residency and a descent into exhaustion and pills that will ultimately kill him, all enabled by Parker’s duplicity and Presley’s weak-willed father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh). Luhrman’s overemphasis on Parker is amplified by a surprising lack of development around Presley’s complicated relationship with Priscilla and his daughter, Lisa Marie.
For all its peaks and ebbs, one unassailable highlight of “Elvis” is Butler’s lead performance. Butler channels the King’s countenance, dance moves, and early singing voice. He effectively captures Presley’s youthful exuberance and rebelliousness, and then his metamorphosis into a talented, yet world-weary and anachronistic showman. While “Elvis” doesn’t realize its full potential or choose the proper context, its emotional resonance sneaks up on you, culminating with a visual segue from Butler into footage of the actual Elvis powering through a rendition of “Unchained Melody” during one of his final stage appearances.
Like Presley’s latter day Vegas concerts, “Elvis” isn’t perfect but is still one heck of a show.
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