The most fascinating linkage in “Elvis” is the extrapolation of commerce and race. Parker is enamored by Presley because he plays Black music but is white. Elvis turns off the white Christian old, like the moribund country singer Hank Snow (David Wenham), and the homophobic men who consider him a “fairy.” Yet he excites the young, like Jimmie Rogers (Kodi Smit-McPhee, both actors provide fantastic comic relief), and he has sex appeal. A wiggle, if you please. Luhrmann takes that wiggle seriously, showing sexually possessed, screaming women. Butler’s crotch, in precisely fitted pink pants and shot in close-up, vibrates. Harsh zooms, quick whip pans, and a taste for horniness (by both men and women) help make the early moments of this biopic so special. As does its anti-capitalist bent, which depicts how often labor, art, and ownership can be spit out and garbled in the destructive system.
Unfortunately, “Elvis” soon slips into staid biopic territory. We see the meteoric rise of Presley, the mistakes—whether by greed or naïveté—he makes along the way, and his ultimate descent toward self-parody. His mother (Helen Thomson) dies on the most hackneyed of beats. His father (Richard Roxburgh) quivers in the shallowest of ways. Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) appears and is handed standard tragic wife material. The pacing slows, and the story just doesn’t offer enough playfulness or interiority to keep up.
But even so, the latter portions of Luhrmann’s film aren’t without its pleasures: The performance of “Evil,” whereby Presley defies the Southern racists who fear his Black-infused music (and sensuality) will infiltrate white America, is arresting. Cinematographer Mandy Walker’s freeze frames imitate black and white photography, like wrapping history in the morning dew. The performance of Elvis’ comeback special, specifically his rendition of “If I Can Dream” soars. During the Vegas sequences, the costumes become ever more elaborate, the make-up ever more garish, acutely demonstrating Presley’s physical decline. And Butler, an unlikely Elvis, tightly grips the reins by providing one show-stopping note after another. There isn’t a hint of fakery in anything Butler does. That sincerity uplifts “Elvis” even as it tumbles.