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Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie a huge disappointment, writes Angela Mollard

Elvis Presley’s favorite snack was a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

“He wanted them real rich,” his cook once said. “You’d turn it and turn it and turn it until all the butter was soaked up: that’s when he liked it.”

You wouldn’t know that if you went to see Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s movie about the greatest star of the last century. In fact, you wouldn’t know much about the man – what motivated him, what challenged him and ultimately what undi disappointed him – because in the most biopic in recent years, the celebrated filmmaker has let showmanship get in the way of great storytelling.

As I exited the cinema this week after two hours and 39 minutes of the most overblown, vaudevillian self-indulgence it seemed Elvis was a victim not just of his manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker, but a filmmaker who rendered him one-dimensional and emotionally mute.

There’s no question Luhrmann is a creative genius but he’s forgotten the central rule of a biopic: namely, that you have to care about the character. In his hands, the rock and roll icon is no more compelling than a packet of sparklers on a wet winter’s night; a brief fizz that fades to nothing.

Luhrmann, who has never won an Oscar, has almost certainly ruled himself out of contention with Elvis even though he was working with brilliant actors, a huge budget and a story every bit as compelling as Freddy Mercury’s or Elton John’s. I was more invested in the low-budget documentary on Amy Winehouse than I was in this soulless, flashy, tricked up, too-clever-by-half interpretation of Elvis’s life.

Stories about famous artists lend themselves naturally to filmmaking because we already have a heart connection with their work. Whether it’s Mozart’s operas in Amadeus or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or Elton John’s Rocketman, a director already has engagement before a single scene is shot.

Yet Luhrmann appears to ignore that existing good will and instead of exploring the Elvis story with all its complexity and pathos he overdecorates with a whirlwind of cinematic devices which come so thick and fast you’re in danger of whiplash.

It’s a shame because the acting is excellent. Austin Butler has the voice, the swivel hips, the expressions and nuance to bring Elvis alive for old fans and new audiences but Luhrmann steals his show and pays scant regard to his relationships – whether with food, drugs or his wife Priscilla. For a man who ballooned in the last years of his life, it’s odd that we never see him eating.

Luhrmann may be an audacious auteur but audiences want heart amid the carnival. Elvis’s toastie is merely a footnote in the folklore surrounding The King but it’s emblematic of the hollowness of fame. Here’s a man who could afford to eat lobsters and caviar and yet in the lonely hours when he couldn’t sleep all he wanted was the comfort of a sweet, warm hug of a sandwich. Yet we get none of that.

By focusing on the role of Parker, the business manager who was blamed for Elvis’s financial issues, vices and early death, the King’s relationship with Priscilla is barely explored even though they met when she was just 14. It would be like making a movie about the Rolling Stones and ignoring Bill Wyman’s seduction of 13-year-old Mandy Smith.

In reducing Olivia DeJonge’s Priscilla to little more than a cameo and allowing Tom Hanks’s gratingly voiced Parker to take center stage, the director bores his audience, neuters his hero and treads the predictable path of elevating the blokes above the babes. Had he portrayed Priscilla with the same respect and nuance he gave Fran in Strictly Ballroom we might have actually given a damn.

Instead, Elvis didn’t make me feel anything. The voice, the music, the legend, the friendships with the likes of BB King and Little Richard were all there to make the movie both a story of its time and a story for our time. Coming hard on the heels of Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning performance in Bohemian Rhapsody and Taron Egerton’s Golden Globe-winning Rocketman Australian audiences were primed to love Elvis, especially in the hands of one of our own.

Instead Luhrmann gets over-involved in his craft, employing comic-style iconography, split screens, highbrow Citizen Kane references and a maddening pace. I willed the camera to stop, to settle, to let me linger on Austin Butler’s Elvis so that I might know the man who captivated my mother’s generation yet, like so many, flailed in the face of fame.

In one of the final scenes, Elvis laments the fact that Parker prevented him from acting opposite Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born, thus robbing him of the opportunity to make a movie for which he would be remembered.

In the most tragic example of art imitating life, Luhrmann has done likewise. My greatest regret about Elvis? That it’ll be another 20 years before anyone attempts to tell his story again.


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