There’s good news and bad news for Baz Luhrmann.
The good news is that Elvis, his biopic of the king of rock’n’roll (starring Austin Butler in the titular lead) currently has a score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that it is a bona fide critical hit – and Luhrmann’s most highly praised film since Moulin Rouge! in 2001.
The bad news? The critics who didn’t like Elvis really didn’t like it. Ever since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it’s been a classic example of ‘love it or loathe every second of it’ cinema.
Metro’s own Larushka Ivan-Zadeh awarded four stars to ‘a dazzling snow globe of a movie’. But Brian Lowry at CNN dismissed it as ‘bloated, gaudy and bordering on self-parody’. Linda Marric at the Jewish Chronicle called it ‘brilliantly acted [and] expertly executed’. But David Ehrlich at IndieWire deemed it a ‘sadistically monotonous super-montage’ in which Elvis Presley’s manager, played by a fat-suited Tom Hanks, was ‘the most insufferable movie character ever conceived’. And, yes, Ehrlich included Jar Jar Binks in that ranking.
But Elvis isn’t like most films which have a Marmite effect on critics.
Usually, that effect stems from a film’s extreme politics or gory violence, that is, it contains elements which some reviewers find too offensive to endure.
Baz Luhrmann at Elvis’s premiere (Picture: Richard Milnes / BACKGRID)
Austin Butler stars as Elvis (Picture: REUTERS)
Another major love / loathe factor is a film’s genre. Some of us can’t stomach horror movies or romantic comedies, however well made they may be.
Elvis, though, is a biopic, a genre which most critics class as ‘all right, I suppose’. It doesn’t have any gruesome scenes, and it isn’t politically controversial (although some reviews have noted that Presley appears to be fixated on the civil rights movement, but not fixated enough to get involved).
The film has divided the critics (Picture: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
The customers are on point (Picture: PA)
Hanks as the Colonel (Picture: Warner Bros)
In this case, the polarised responses come down to Luhrmann’s unique sense of how a film should look and sound.
Ever since the Australian writer-director rhumba-d into view with Strictly Ballroom in 1992, he has specialised in cinematic glitter cannons: camp, kitsch, colourful and loud.
Strictly Ballroom in 1992 launched Lurhmann (Picture: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)
Iconic Moulin Rouge came in 2001 (Picture: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock)
There is always yearning emotion in his films, but there is also whooshing camerawork, pink sequined suits, and deafening dance remixes.
When that exuberant aesthetic suits the subject matter, you get Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001). When it doesn’t, you get Australia (2008) and The Great Gatsby (2013). Either way, Luhrmann’s kaleidoscopic vision has never been for everyone.
What’s striking about the Elvis reviews is that the positive ones made so many similar points to the negative ones. Most critics thought that Butler had the sizzling charisma for the job; most felt that they didn’t get to know the man behind the rhinestone-encrusted shades; and most agreed that watching the film was like being drunk on a rollercoaster during a firework display for 159 minutes.
The only disagreement was on whether that was their idea of a dream or a nightmare.
Whichever side you’re on, you have to hand it to Luhrmann. He’s one of the few film-makers who can enrage and enrapture critics just by being himself.
Elvis is in cinemas now.