When you go to a Baz Luhrman film, you go to a Baz Luhrmann ‘experience’.
It would be churlish of me to say you wouldn’t know who he is, as perhaps the most prominent and controversial Australian filmmaker of the past three decades.
Whether it was his delightfully charming Strictly Ballroom (1992), his explosive version of Romeo + Juliet (1996) which exposed an entirely new audience to the work of Shakespeare, his dreary and meandering version of The Great Gatsby (2013), or the worst piece of domestic cinema in recent memory, Australia (2008) – everyone but everyone knows who he is.
The best work about the greatest rock and roller of the past 60 years (arguably) is contained in a series of profoundly insightful documentaries, from my favourite, 1972’s Elvis on Tour, to 2017’s The King, which draws on interviews with music luminaries including Johnny Cash’s enormously talented daughter Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Alec Baldwin among others.
There have been several biopics as well, one with Kurt Russell and another with Jonathan Rhys Meyer, but they were a bit slow and dreary.
So along comes Baz, who wanted to give the man the explosive presence he so richly deserves, simply named Elvis – what else do you really need?
The timeline of this picture is based around when Presley (played by the enigmatic and compelling Austin Butler) was ‘discovered’ by Colonel Tom Parker (admirably portrayed by the excellent Tom Hanks) and then thoroughly exploited every step of the way until his untimely death in 1977 at the age of 42.
Because of the Baz of things, a lot of reviews won’t tell you, this film is a complete and utterly brilliant roller coaster ride through the King’s most popular period. It captures all the hip-shaking, authority-defying brilliance and complete sexuality of the man until he could carry on no longer.
Elvis is a two-hour, complete adrenaline trip. It’s not supposed to be historically accurate so much as a film that captures a moment when an entire generation completely lost the plot.
What it also captures brilliantly, and this is where Lurhman actually dwells, is the black American music Elvis took his influences from, especially hanging out with BB King. Elvis’s very first performance was channelling a singer he saw in a shed as a kid. This is a really important aspect of the man and his music.
Parker noted at one point he thought Presley was black. There is also a stunning cameo from Shonka Dukureah, as Big Mama Thornton, performing the original version of Hound Dog.
Luhrmann recently told the Radio Times: “Now, here’s our job. How do we translate strange and shocking to a contemporary audience? So to a certain degree, there are things we went apples to apples with. But there are other things where it can’t be an impersonation – it’s got to be an interpretation.
“Because we don’t have the source material, and even if we did, it’s filtered through old nostalgic technology. So Austin (Butler’s) number one mission, from the moment I met him, was to humanise Elvis Presley, to show the person and the journey.”
Luhrmann completely focuses on that person and that journey. No strange Moulin Rouge meanderings, no trying to pack every Australian narrative into the disastrous film of the same name, but rather a focus on Elvis from when he started twisting that Pelvis until he could no longer carry on. In the end, it’s a relatively short period.
With any Baz film, you’re not going to get the full three-dimensional picture because it isn’t what he does. But Austin Butler does amazing things with the material he’s got and milks it for every single ounce of sweat in a stunning performance.
And, of course, as always, Luhrmann’s partner in crime, costume designer, set designer and all-around everything Catherine Martin, gives this film an utterly beautiful sheen of the razzle and dazzle it so richly deserves.
Baz Luhrmann’s film will never satisfy the purists or Baz critics, but he has made an utterly captivating film of incredible and satisfying entertainment.
Three out of five quiffs.
Elvis is playing at cinemas across Canberra.