As good as Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic is, it should have focused on the King’s final years in Vegas to avoid a bad musical biopic cliché.
elvis is still charming to audiences and critics around the world, but it tells the wrong story and ultimately harms the film. Luhrmann’s film, despite its electrifying central performance of Austin Butler, sticks fairly strictly to the montage-heavy formula dictated by so many musical biopics. Too many musical biopics all adopt the same routine structure, and while they’re often successful and have a shot at award nominations, their lifelong narratives usually do their subject a disservice. This overused and almost inflexible rise-and-fall-and-reemergence trajectory tries to stuff every seemingly indispensable detail: career beginnings, initial controversies, later success, fame, wild days, poor management, recovery, and then one last hurrah. In the end, one rarely learns anything more meaningful than what one might glean from Wikipedia, despite the striking direction and stunning visuals.
The kind of generic storytelling in musical biopics that has already been parodied. in 2007, Go Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the brilliant genre show about the tumultuous life of a fictional country singer, should have ended the generic biopic in its tracks. His satire destroyed every tired element of the genre so decisively and hilariously. However, the problem is that Go hard bombed hard at the box office. Although it eventually became a cult favorite, it failed to garner enough commercial impact to compel future musical biopics to even try a different approach. in a postGo hard World, it’s hard to take a lot of these formulaic biopics seriously.
For this very reason, Luhrmann’s film should have narrowed the scope of Elvis’ life to focus on only a significant part of it. The most thematically mature and dramatically ironic aspect of Elvis Presley’s life as portrayed in Luhrmann’s film is his Vegas stint in the 1970s. During this time, his career was paralyzed by a bad management deal that led to his illness and drug abuse, but he was also named the King of Rock n’ Roll and gave it his all at every gig. This perfect dichotomy would have allowed the film to simultaneously portray Elvis at his worst and best, while also skipping the needless decline of his life before that time. Unfortunately, musical biopics rarely deviate from the formulaic storytelling that Luhrmann ultimately adhered to. Daring biopics shake up the formula or ignore it entirely, such as I am not there (where several actors play Bob Dylan), The last days (a fictional account of Kurt Cobain’s last days) and Love & Mercy (where Paul Dano and John Cusack play Brian Wilson). If Luhrmann had also avoided the musical biopic formula and focused on a shorter but altogether more important aspect of Elvis’ life, elvis could have offered more on its subject by focusing more intensely on less.
How it is, elvis is a good but still mostly generic biopic that works like a checklist of story beats and deserves more. Focusing on Elvis’ Vegas period would have allowed for a more organic and less mechanical examination of his adultery and failing health, in addition to reporting on his relationship with Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker during their most tense period. Elvis’ legendary Vegas performances would have been framed all the more movingly. A single flashback or brief prologue from his 1950s glory days would have sufficed to establish his tragic downfall.
As elvis continues to be a commercial success, it’s safe to say the formulaic musical biopic isn’t going away anytime soon. Luhrmann’s film is certainly a crowd-pleaser, but it missed a clear opportunity to tell a more interesting and emotionally resonant story. A version focusing on Elvis’ Vegas period might have sacrificed mainstream appeal and might have needed a more reticent director than Luhrmann to pull it off, but it certainly would have captured a fascinating chapter in Elvis’ life. We’re hoping the upcoming Michael Jackson biopic will learn a lesson or two from this Go hard before the cameras roll.
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