Movie review

The first shot of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” isn’t Austin Butler in the titular role, or blue suede shoes: It’s a chintzy gift shop snowman-shaped snow globe, only seen for a moment, before Luhrmann takes us inside the glass of his tragic tale, Rosebud-style.

That’s because the movie is as much about Elvis Presley’s manager, the disgraced Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) — the “snowman” dusting everyone with money — as it is about Presley. Parker managed Presley for most of his career, was later sued for mismanagement and is likely guilty, the movie declares, of “financial abuse” of the singer.

Parker and his tacky snow globes, his Elvis Christmas specials, his Vegas residencies and carnival attitude toward art represent everything that the name Presley has been lampooned for ad nauseam: The Elvis impersonators, the vibrato, the “thank you, thankyouverymuch,” the Neostyle sunglasses and jaw-high rhinestone collars — the things that are not Presley, but rather a critique of unselfconscious commercialization of his icon.

There is another moment toward the end of the movie — the emotional climax — where Presley tries to extricate himself from Parker’s claws. They face off. Parker tells Presley he can’t end their business partnership, because their finances are inextricably linked — but so are their fates. Parker isn’t just the man behind Presley; Presley is Parker. The two are North and South poles on the same globe. The subtext: Presley exploited Black music on his way to fame, and Parker exploited him.

But that subtext is too subtle to feel intentional in a Luhrmann movie. Maybe if that scene felt like intentional brilliance, rather than accidental, the movie wouldn’t just be one of the better musician biopics of recent years (and it is, easily better than “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Rocketman”) — it would be a great movie.

As it is, “Elvis” is a gorgeous tragedy, a movie mixtape with a sonorous performance at its core, maybe Luhrmann’s best since “Romeo + Juliet” (1996) and perhaps his most postcard-perfect movie ever. 

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But it has a rubberized script, a turgid length and a key issue that affects many musical biopics: It’s not really sure what it thinks or wants to say about Presley. It wants to show where the King’s music came from — Black musicians — but doesn’t want to offend the King’s fans.

As it is, the movie shows American Black culture as the source from which Presley draws his superpowers, but that siphoning comes across as morally neutral. Black characters comment on his appropriation of their music with a shrug or a can’t-help-but-love-you gaze. The result is a Presley who isn’t daring enough to be complicated; a Presley that fans aren’t required to think too hard about.

It feels like a stark contrast when, at the very end, real footage of Presley appears on the screen and one is reminded of the simple, earnest Presley: the Presley who popped his collars because he was supposedly self-conscious about his skinny neck; who memorized James Dean lines in boyish idolization, and wanted desperately to be Marlon Brando. There’s little of that Presley in this.

Not that any of that stops Butler from doing a powerful impression of what the maximalist mind of Luhrmann probably imagines Presley was like. (The director would have been 14 when Presley died; Butler wouldn’t yet be born for 14 years.)

“Elvis” is like watching a good Elvis impersonator, not really like watching the King himself.

“Elvis” ★★★ (out of four)

With Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia Dejonge. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. 159 minutes. Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking. Opens June 24 in multiple theaters.

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