Baz Luhrmann’s style, his sophisticated visual vocabulary, effortlessly reconciles the subtle and the bombastic. The use of a picture of Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura alone is an exercise in next-level semiotics that is expansive and profound, touching on pop culture and social revolution in equal measures with such precision that it is hard to imagine a better symbol to capture that moment in time. It is fiction that is truer than reality could be.
And, thus, it is throughout this extravaganza, anchored by an empathetic (what else?) performance by Tom Hanks as Elvis’ rapacious manager, Col. Tom Parker, the unreliable narrator as given to bombast as Lurhmann himself. Austin Butler as Elvis, however, cleverly does not compete with the fevered pyrotechnics of his director’s vision even as he channels the essence of a character that is larger than life. Instead, he complements the structure and idiom with a sweet innocence that makes the realization of how he has been betrayed by those he trusts most all the more visceral. In a larger sense, becoming the sacrificial lamb to a society on the cusp of change, embodying the spirit of rebellion as a natural expression of what he has experienced coming up against a norm that is as threatened by its exuberance as it is outraged by its existence.
We are no more meant to believe everything that we see on screen in the strict historical sense as the medieval audiences of mystery plays were meant to take the allegories set before them as fact. We are, however, meant to be just as moved. And, so, we are. And far more than a mere recounting of incidents in one of the most remarkable lives of the 20th century. It might serve to inform, but it would fail to reveal what was most salient to the legend, to why Elvis has become legend, and was almost from the moment of his ignominious end. That he was purportedly perusing a book on spirituality when he shuffled off this mortal coil atop a toilet is a metaphor in itself, though not one considered here.
This film ends with Elvis’ last performance, as infused with his sense of dedication and showmanship and boyish charm as any, albeit one without the wiggle of his early years, or even the ersatz karate moves that ran rampant during those of his physical decline. It is Elvis himself who has the last word in a lesser-known clip that resonates particularly speaking on the importance of song that closes our story, before we are reminded that he is the best-selling solo recording artist of all time, and the clips of his funeral flicker to life on the screen.
What has come before, though, fusing myth and reality, jumping between past and present, consolidate and confirm the legend, taking this story out of conventional time and setting into a timelessness that is right and proper. It is the apotheosis of Elvis into ELVIS, and it is a hell of an experience.