An all-out assault on the senses that can shatter the will of even pro athletes (let alone an out-of-shape journalist reeling from the after-effects of a booster shot), director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic is so unbearable that it makes a strong case for why studios should always retain some oversight over auteurs, and resembles not one but two of the worst Indian blockbusters in recent memory. Nobody would’ve expected Luhrmann to investigate some of the seedier sides of Elvis’ life—the King of Rock and Roll has never been able to shake off accusations of predatory behaviour towards minors, for instance—but as a fan of the filmmaker’s maximalist style, I wasn’t expecting Elvis to be the unholy marriage of the hagiographical Sanju and the structurally anarchic KGF films.
But first, a story. In a bid to maintain the bare minimum journalistic integrity, I decided that because I want to write about the recent KGF: Chapter 2, I must first acquaint myself with KGF: Chapter 1. So, on a summer evening some weeks ago, I threw it on, unsure of what to expect, and utterly unprepared for what I was in for. Two minutes went by, and the unskippable trailer that always plays on Prime Video before your film or show hadn’t ended. I was only half paying attention, having figured that I had no option but to wait it out.
But it wasn’t until another minute had passed that I was struck by two quick realisations, back to back. The first was that for some reason, Prime was plugging the first KGF film to me while I waited to watch the first KGF film. This was odd, but not that odd; Netflix often advertises directly at paying Netflix customers. But then it hit me. What I was watching wasn’t a trailer for KGF: Chapter 1. I was watching the film itself.
Over gaudy title cards introducing ‘Rocking Star Yash’ and randomly assembled visuals of the actor posturing menacingly on screen, I discovered that the first few minutes of KGF: Chapter 1 were deliberately designed to mimic a breakneck montage. The most accurate way to describe KGF (or, at least, however much of it that I was able to watch) is like sitting through an endless version of one of those ‘last time on…’ recaps that are played before new episodes of TV shows.
I never managed to finish the film; I checked out after the scene in which our ‘hero’, having stalked and harassed a poor woman relentlessly, corners her in a hotel room wearing nothing but a bathrobe. I chose to quit watching KGF because it’s a morally offensive piece of work. But I would’ve probably forgiven it and continued had its crimes been restricted to offending the language of cinema. I dodged a bullet with that film, and also KGF 2, which I subsequently lost all ambition of checking out. But life wasn’t going to let me off that easily. Had I watched Elvis at home and not on an IMAX screen, I would’ve likely stopped around the halfway mark.
Loud, ludicrous and easily the worst film of Luhrmann’s career, Elvis swears by the kind of relentless storytelling can only be rivalled by the filmmaker’s objectively weird decision to frame the rockstar’s life from the perspective of his manager Colonel Tom Parker—it’s like telling the Taylor Swift story through the eyes of Scooter Braun—and its utter disinterest in examining the person underneath the prosthetics. By the time the movie reveals that the reason it comes across as a three-hour Shakespearean fever dream is because that’s exactly what it is—in a blind-and-miss moment, it is implied that the entire thing was Colonel Parker’s life flashing before his eyes as he shuffled off this mortal coil—it is too late.
And in its pursuit of capturing the icon’s whirlwind life, it simply doesn’t pause for breath. Nor does it have a single emotional thread that it can weave through the lush tapestry of Elvis’ career. Although there is a half-hearted attempt to assign this responsibility to his love story with wife Priscilla. Their scenes together are underscored to reprisal after reprisal of the song “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which serves as a sort of leitmotif but does little justice to either the film, the characters, or itself.
The movie is more interested in projecting Elvis as a bird trapped in a gilded cage, or comparing him to a circus monkey. Luhrmann, who had a four-hour cut of this film that was seemingly scuppered by Jesus Christ himself—thank the Lord—leans into the tragedy of Elvis’ life by dutifully hitting every required note with the force of a million muscular men. We’re meant to sympathise with him, feel sorry for how he was treated, and walk out of the theatre not in desperate need of ORS but in renewed awe of his talents.
It should never be the movie’s burden to address a character’s bad behaviour. Ideally, the film should explain it, put it in context, and move on. But like Rajkumar Hirani’s objectively terrible Sanjay Dutt biopic, Elvis chooses to actively make excuses for its protagonist’s misdeeds. Having probably understood that even the King’s most devoted fans cannot possibly explain his alleged predatory pattern of abuse—his courtship with Priscilla began when she was just 14, a full decade younger than him—the movie ignores this altogether. And it treats Elvis’ desertion of his family and repeated infidelities with the sort of unemotional matter-of-factness that one would normally reserve for placing an order for waffles at a Vegas diner.
There are, of course, a few moments where Lurhmann’s signatures sing. A sequence with BB King at Club Handy is particularly electric, as is another scene comprising entirely—and I’m not exaggerating—of shots of instant star Austin Butler strutting across streets while a Doja Cat remix of “Hound Dog” thumps in the background. It’s the sort of transcendent melding of music and images that Luhrmann does so well. But virtually all of this happens in the first hour. The rest of the time, you’re mostly waiting to leave the building.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.