“Elvis” (Rated B)
Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge
Genre: Biography, Music, Drama
Where to watch: In theaters
North America’s new number-one box office champ pairs the legendary Elvis Presley with infamous comic-book villain the Penguin!
“Huh?” you say!
Yes, in a brilliant stroke of synergy, Warner Bros.’ new “Elvis” biopic seemingly features as its chief antagonist one of the supervillains from Batman, part of its DC Films arm.
Confused? Not as much as you will be when you see Tom Hanks play Elvis’ long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker in a manner reminiscent of a cross between the early comics’ version of the mobster – also known as Oswald Cobblepot – and that bird-like creature Danny DeVito played in “Batman Returns” (1992).
Trading in the cigarettes for cigars, and including an incredibly distracting prosthetic nose that can only be described as a beak, the only thing missing is the monocle.
Was this supposed to be a comic-book-inspired tale?
Well, even Elvis comes across as a superhero character, of sorts. His superpower is apparently his silky voice, and his kryptonite: drugs and alcohol! Plus, when he shakes his hips, folks become transfixed and whipped into a frenzy or trance or complete and bitter outrage.
The hero Elvis versus a cartoon-like birdman; just one of the many odd choices that abound in this often-bizarre film, directed, produced, and co-written by Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby”).
We follow Elvis from his rise to fame and unprecedented superstardom as a rock ‘n’ roll icon, examining in depth his complicated relationship with Parker over the course of 20 years.
“Elvis” is as dazzling and lavish as “Moulin Rouge!” And just like that now 22-year old picture, it makes bold attempts to be fresh and different. That translates to pacing that’s quick enough to induce seizures for both those already afflicted and for those who’ve never had them. For at least two-thirds of the picture, “Elvis” feels like the longest trailer in movie history; no scene seems to be longer than about 30 seconds.
All the musical numbers are spliced with more incredibly short scenes.
And while that might actually be an innovative way to make a musical a little less cheesy, when the entire movie appears to be just quick clips, something feels a little off.
Things, thankfully, settle down a bit for the final third of the movie. This allows the person who’s supposed to be star to really shine. Austin Butler is truly the best part of “Elvis”, and gives compelling performances at all stages of Presley’s life, especially that tragic downward spiral, leading to his early death at only 42.
It’s unfortunate that the worst part of the film – just like an evil comic-book villain – threatens to overshadow everything good here. And yes, the worst part (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) is Hanks’ portrayal.
Whose idea was it to play Colonel Parker as an over-the-top cartoon character? I had to search out interviews on the internet to see if Parker could possibly have been this much of a clown.
Parker was born in the Netherlands, and based on the few interviews that exist, his accent was indeed a little odd. But the accent does appear to have been primarily in the realm of one from the southern United States.
For some reason, however, Hanks plays him with an accent that suggests he came from Hanna-Barbera – something of the Scooby-Doo villain vintage. Or perhaps, closer to what Boris and Natasha sounded like from “Rocky and Bullwinkle”.
Luhrmann ultimately must take blame for this, and especially for the decisions to film Hanks from goofy angles making him look like a circus freak or, again, like Penguin from Batman.
Parker was truly a mysterious figure, but telling this story from his perspective, and having the gall to name it “Elvis” does a disservice to everyone.
On top of that, there’s the liberal use of artistic license. Many biopics are juicing up their narratives and rearranging facts and sequences, and merging stories and even characters. But apparently more than plenty things depicted here didn’t quite happen the way this film suggests, right down to who did what, who was friends with whom, and even who knew about whatever.
But while you’ll have to take everything in “Elvis” with a grain of salt, some of those things are forgivable. The bird-like villain, however – no way! It distracts and detracts from what is otherwise an entertaining and certainly not dull film.
Perhaps this was done intentionally to show how much of a detriment Parker was to Presley’s life. But ultimately, just like DeVito’s nutjob Penguin in “Batman Returns”, a wildly ridiculous, overpowering and off-putting force just simply upstages the title character.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.