“Elvis” Struggles To Find Its Voice With Baz Luhrmann’s Busy Directing

Blazing, dazzling lights. The largest hotel venue in Las Vegas. A crowd of a thousand smiling faces gathers in the theater of a 5-star hotel to lose themselves in the spectacle that is Elvis Presley, who delivers a marvelous performance but feels like a caged animal as he pours his heart out into a microphone, slowly coming unraveled in the golden prison he could never fly away from: his stage. It’s a fascinating scene — especially with flamboyant direction from Baz Luhrmann adding the iconic pop of color Presley was renowned for. Fascinating would be the best way to characterize “Elvis,” a glittery production of montages that are either masterpieces or devoid of depth and historical accuracy. It is a fate worse than an objectively bad movie, and in a way, exactly what the king of rock ‘n’ roll deserves.

Aside from being Baz Luhrmann’s first break back into the mainstream box office since 2013’s “The Great Gatsby,” “Elvis” was also the first portrait of the star in decades to see a theatrical release. Audience and critic reviews proved to be generous, and the film was showered with praise following its release in theaters on June 24, raking in $30.5 million on its opening weekend with a continuous uptrend in profit. Though the film was certainly well-executed in terms of its competent direction, stellar performances and visuals nearly as glamorous as the singer himself, it also had its flaws. Rocky and jarring transitions between mediocrity and excellence disrupted flow between scenes. Some were nearly as jaw-dropping and magnificent as Presley’s first performance on the Las Vegas stage, but others fell flat after getting lost in their own artistic depth. Altogether, “Elvis” is a glittering portrait of a man haunted by his talent and losing himself in his own music, but it misses the mark nearly half of the time by trying to overcompensate, which, oddly enough, reflects the true story of the performer better than the plot itself.

Signature to Luhrmann’s iconic directing style, even with a fragile screenplay, “Elvis” brings glitz and glamor through its clever cinematography, costuming and set design. Throughout the entirety of the film, there is never a dull moment as it follows Presley through his dizzying highs and devastating lows, leaving a trail of glitter and rhinestones in his wake. Deserving of their own spotlight are the special effects and costuming departments, who worked overtime to recreate the singer’s iconic looks stitch by stitch and turn 31-year-old actor Austin Butler into a convincing Elvis Presley at all ages, from a young adult on the brink of maturity to a tired, middle-aged shadow of what he once was.

Butler’s stellar performance wholly embodied the singer, showing clear evidence of a keen study of Presley’s demeanor, presence and mannerisms. To prepare for the role, according to KTLA, Butler spent two years “isolating [himself] completely” without seeing family or friends to analyze archival footage and interviews of the star — though unorthodox, his methods paid off. He completely transforms into Elvis over the course of the film, allowing viewers to watch him develop, not only as, but alongside the rock icon as he grapples with the trials and tribulations of having one’s name in lights.

It would almost be unfair to consider a film so close to taking flight like “Elvis” as forgettable fun, but with its inability to pack its own message into nearly three hours of screen time and the numerous occasions when it trips over itself, it is the most appropriate depiction of the music icon’s biopic. In all fairness, the movie is precisely what he deserves. Presley rose to fame by recording the songs of other artists and seldom wrote his own hits, so if anything, a film barely meager of glory is an adequate love letter to his iconography. Perhaps, with a few more hours in the writers’ room, it could shine as bright as the Memphis-raised luminary himself.