Elvis Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks
Elvis Director: Baz Luhrmann
Elvis Stars: 3.5/5
If you’re making a biopic on The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, then you better have a director who’s as ravishingly flamboyant in his filmmaking as the great Elvis Presley is with his timeless tunes. Enter Baz Luhrmann, whose previous outings – Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby – were as extravagantly flashy as they can get! With so many Elvis impersonators at every nook and corner of the world, the young Austin Butler is tasked with the heavy lifting of toeing the line between a more justified and less caricaturish portrayal of Elvis Presley. Does the end justify the bright blood, lots of sweat and even tears in Elvis? Let’s find out!
In a surprising storyline structure move that will leave the audience divided, Elvis depicts the meteoric rise and dastardly fall of arguably America’s most legendary pop culture figure to ever exist through the antagonist eyes of his scamster manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in unpalatable prosthetics!). The narrative lopsided quite quickly, as it’s not just The Elvis Presley Show, but The Elvis Presley & Colonel Tom Parker Show. Through Parker’s POV, we’re quickly strung through ostentatious montages with swirls of a comic book feel editing, as Elvis’ Memphis beginnings and the influence of Black music, with the R&B, Blues and Gospel takeover are touched upon as are his physical music influences and allies like B.B. King (Kelvin Harris Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey) and Little Richard (Alton Mason), just to name a few.
It’s not soon before Elvismania takes over as young, disciplined women sin in fantasies of the gyrating, pelvic dominant moves of Elvis, who skyrockets to stardom that shakes the American dream. With his pink and white trademark jumpsuits, liner-laden eyes and a sexy swag that could make both men and women go weak in their knees, as shown in a hilarious scene, with each thrill-seeking performance, we see Austin’s Elvis trespassing his ideal destination; just an inch away from the Rock of Eternity. However, the thorn in his musical prowess from ever reaching heavenly heights is the Colonel, who cons his way through emotional manipulation and a clear case of Stockholm syndrome. Even though Elvis is able to see right through his manager’s misdeeds, albeit at a painstakingly slow rate, he’s not able to rid himself of Tom’s evil clutches. Narrated at a time of a post-Elvis world, where Colonel was deemed as the villain of the global icon’s story, Parker trudges through Las Vegas’ casinos, sick to his very bones, trying to portray himself as the saviour and not the bad guy. In doing so, the narrative shifts to a half-and-half ballpark, when you really are only interested in knowing the man behind the glittery jumpsuits. There’s a minimal approach towards Elvis’ family – whether it be his absolute “mamma’s boys” equation with his mother Gladys Presley (Helen Thomson), his father Vernon Presley’s (Richard Roxburgh) ulterior motives or the love of his life, his doomed love story with ex-wife Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) and daughter Lisa Marie Presley – which negates their existence in the story overall. And it’s truly a shame…
When it comes to the performances in Elvis, you genuinely can’t help but fall in love with Austin Butler‘s ostentatious performance that surprisingly, never feels caricaturish and is rather an extravagant homage to the King of Over The Top. His strikingly blue-eyed wonder eyes, the lip curl magic and those maniacal dance moves all interlace and gift us a riveting act. While he takes time to find some footing as a young Elvis, he gains major credence when the narrative shifts to Elvis’ 1968 Comeback Special – where Presley is riddled with Colonel’s capitalist motives (and those bubblegum movies even Elvis would like to erase from his memory!) and the claustrophobic gatekeeping by the higher-ups in the midst of racial segregation – decides its times to fine-tune his suede boots and do what he does best, sing and entertain like only he knows how! Prominently, it’s in the third act, when Elvis’ widening waistline and overzealous drugs intake take over his life that Austin truly shines in the melancholy of his glamorous Las Vegas residency. It’s here where Colonel’s ruthless, satanic side comes blazing through, as he squeezes Presley’s talent to mere bones, restricting him from touring the world and instead, settling for an almost five-year run at The International in Vegas – while robbing him off of half of is fortune and clearing his own gambling debts in the process. Watching the parallel sequence between the real Elvis and the movie Elvis singing the blues with Unchained Melody – when Elvis was at the brink of his death bed, with someone having to even hold his microphone – but still rocking it like only the King of Rock can is a bittersweet swan song.
Speaking of Parker, I can’t believe I’m writing this but Tom Hanks in Elvis is probably the celebrated Oscar winner’s most awkward performance to date. With the ugly shield of the prosthetics and an imbalanced accent that’s evidently distracting, Hanks is restricted from letting his facial expressions prowess take hold of his wicked act. While I don’t blame Elvis’ writing team – Baz Luhrmann, Jeremy Doner, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce – for adding in as many of Tom Hanks scenes as possible, what I truly was invested in seeing was the complicated relationship between Presley and Parker, which unfortunately dips its toes but never digs deep. That’s not to say there weren’t some gut-wrenching scenes between the pair… one, in particular, sees Elvis breathless and collapsed just before a show and the Colonel’s only worry is that the show must go on. The emotional abuse previously mentioned takes center stage in Gladys’ funeral sequence where a downtrodden Elvis is manipulated to gain sympathy for his mother’s loss, a turning point in Presley’s impending downfall.
As for the supporting cast, Olivia DeJonge is given a firecracker introduction, but then eventually finds herself on the sidelines when it comes to her character arc. The eventual breakup between Elvis and Prescilla feels anti-climatic as we’re never given time to invest in a relationship that was near and dear to Elvis’ heart. While a similar treatment is given to Richard Roxburgh’s Vernon, it’s Helen Thomson as Gladys, the most important woman in Presley’s life, who manages to leave you enraptured by the mother-son equation and how truly lost Elvis became after her passing.
Other limited yet notable performances come from Kelvin Harrison as the late, great B.B. King, the friendly light in Presley’s darkness and even Dacre Montgomery as Steve Binder, the American producer who tries his damnest to remove the Colonel’s vindictive clutches off of Elvis. Going back to the narrative structure, Elvis feels like a bunch of chapters in the pop icon’s life spruced together without a single cohesive thought process. In certain cases, this works as we see an interlacing scene of a young Elvis (Chaydon Jay is a revelation) being engulfed by a spiritual awakening with an adolescent Presley brings about the same vigour, but more of a sexual awakening for them boys and girls. Elvis’ meet with The Beatles, the Richard Nixon influence and the infamous Ann-Margret affair are all significant Elvis instances buried and not given the time of the day in Elvis. In a runtime of 161 minutes, Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa’s jazzy editing is sure to give you a headrush, but thankfully, you’re still entranced enough to watch the movie and even obligated to enjoy it. Along with Mandy Walker’s captivating cinematography, the performance sequences with the close-up shots at just the right angle do Elvis the Musician such sweet justice.
No expense seemed spared when it came to the theatrical aspect of Elvis’ glamorous life, both on stage and behind the scenes, and the production design by Catherine Martin (with costume design credits as well!) and Karen Murphy are to thank for that as they brilliantly bring Baz Luhrmann’s outlandish vision to life with finesse. This is particularly witnessed in the Las Vegas sequences. As for the soundtrack, Elvis’ greatest hits are all materialised to a T, and even reimagined with current generation singers. However, I’d have been completely okay with Austin Butler’s Elvis covers rather than breaking the suspension of disbelief that it’s infact a biopic on Elvis Presley that I’m watching, and not the real thing.
In conclusion, for what it’s worth, Elvis may have many roadblocks from being a masterpiece of a movie and even falls into the pits of a classic biopic trope – overused to its very bone in the recent past, “caught in its own trap” (All the pun intended!) – but Elvis is still a victory, nevertheless, because Austin Butler manages to hit the sweet spot and introduce Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley to a new generation, who may only have heard of Elvis from their parents. Elvis may have left the building, but his inimitable legacy lives on, even in glossy homages. Baz Luhrmann is the greatest example!