Directed by Baz Luhrmann — Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner..
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known who Elvis Presley was. I grew up in a loving home where Elvis Presley’s songs were often played over and over again. Both of my parents are Elvis super-fans. My father was nicknamed “Elvis,” when he was young. My mom likes to tell me that, at times, he really looked like him when they were both young. In school, one time I even did a presentation on the life and career of Elvis Presley at a final exam. It, then, goes without saying that the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley music biopic was something the family was very much looking forward to. Some of us were also quite nervous about whether it could work. Having now seen it, I can say that, in some ways, it is an excellent biopic that the Presley family should be incredibly happy with, but that it also is just as formulaic as the other music biopics that have been released these last few years. It pleases me to say that because of Luhrmann’s direction and Austin Butler’s performance it is more than just a run-of-the-mill biopic, though.
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, obviously, tracks the life and tumultuous rise-and-fall career of Elvis Aaron Presley (played by Austin Butler), the King of Rock n’ Roll, who needs no introduction. Though it primarily follows the titular character from his childhood inspirations through his glory days and up until his death after spending years, essentially but not literally, caged in America’s City of Sin, the film is curiously seen from the unreliable perspective of narrator Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks), Elvis’ controversial manager who had a background as a carnival worker. Luhrmann’s film, through the use of a frame story depicting Colonel Tom Parker thinking back on his role in Elvis’ death while on his deathbed, essentially presents the story of Elvis’ rise-and-fall as a ‘Faustian Bargain’ where the trickster-like and manipulative manager convinced the young man with a God-given talent to sell his soul to protect and care for the people around him. A tragedy about a young musician being swallowed whole by the business side of show-business.
Baz Luhrmann, a true Australian auteur, is a somewhat divisive director. His unsubtle, deliberately anachronistic, and excessive and kinetic visual style isn’t for everyone. Films like Romeo+Juliet and The Great Gatsby saw the auteur toy with legitimate classics to update them, make them hipper, and feel more involving today, but the breathless (somewhat chaotic) pace in Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, both of which I really enjoy, made the films feel quite unwieldy to some. In toying with classics, he rubbed some people the wrong way. Though it’ll certainly be a crowd-pleaser, Elvis, a film about American music royalty, won’t sit well with everyone precisely because of Luhrmann’s stylistic flourishes. His new film, a music biopic epic, is fast-paced, very long, glamorous, and, of course, Luhrmann’s film also blends Presley’s iconic tunes with modern artists’ music.
Those kinds of deliberate anachronisms probably won’t sit well with purists, but I think it works for the film as the film’s subject essentially blended musical genres in ways that made his versions of the songs, which oftentimes could be heard elsewhere be sung by others, unique. Using modern tunes, of course, also helps to make younger audiences understand just how hip his music was way back then. Furthermore, I also think the pacing and the excessive nature of the film is, in a way, appropriate because of its subject who undeniably was larger than life and who was eventually worn down by exhaustion and addiction.
Luhrmann brings kinetic energy to the film. There are so many fast-paced and inventive transitions and camera spins, often around Las Vegas, that can almost make your head spin. In the film’s many montages, Luhrmann also sometimes makes some very interesting choices, like showing Presley’s childhood as a comic book because of Presley’s love of ‘Captain Marvel, Jr.,’. These choices almost always really worked for me (and I wanted so much more of that ‘comic book-y’ style). Their intensity and inventiveness makes the film stand out even when it, structurally, is doing something quite stale. I also think the film deserves a lot of credit for the way the musical performances play to you as a viewer. They are all really engaging, and one of them was so electric that it gave me goosebumps.
Where the film maybe doesn’t play as well is in its structure. It seems structurally confused, in that characters will often repeat things that have already been made clear by the narrator or in quick scenes earlier in the film. It feels almost as if the frame narrative wasn’t always the plan. Furthermore, even though Luhrmann plays with style of a music biopic, it follows pretty much the exact same tired formula that films like Bohemian Rhapsody and others like it did. Also, I do think the film sometimes sands off the edges of its subject in ways that are, from a certain point of view, flattering, but it also means that the film doesn’t tell the whole story. It alludes to the fact that there is a significant age-gap between Priscilla Presley and Elvis, it alludes to the fact that Elvis struggled to say no to his female fans, and it alludes to the fact that Elvis profited off Black artists’ songs, but the film moves past these things quite quickly and without honestly discussing them.
None of this would work if the titular character was not played by someone capable of making their performance more than just an Elvis-impersonation. Austin Butler, who you may have seen in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, delivers a jaw-dropping and dedicated performance. His work here makes it difficult to take your eyes off him. It’s not just the look or the voice, Butler moves exactly how he needed to capture what made Elvis Presley the King. His performance is a must-see. Tom Hanks’ performance will be more divisive. It feels almost like he is in a different movie, at times, with an over-the-top accent and a fat-suit that does his performance no favors. It wasn’t a distracting element to me, but I suspect it will be to others.
Elvis is definitely a Baz Luhrmann film. That will be good news to some and alarming news to others. It is bloated, extravagant, exhausting, stylish, deliberately anachronistic, formulaic, and quite flattering to the King of Rock n’ Roll. If it sounds like a somewhat messy epic, it is because that is exactly what it is. But I can honestly say that I liked it. It is a tragic story but a loving tribute to one of music’s greatest-ever stars.
7.9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.