'Elvis': A Messy, Yet Thoroughly Entertaining Love Letter to the King of Rock 'n Roll
Elvis Presley is one of those cultural icons that I feel like I've always been aware of. I've been obsessed with music in general since I was a child, and due to his massive influence and ubiquity in this realm, he was almost impossible to avoid. I wouldn't consider myself a superfan of his, necessarily, but I have always liked his music, and appreciate him as an artist. In the years since his untimely death, his legacy has become almost mythical, as his meteoric rise the top, his struggles with addiction and his own health, and a host of other highs and lows he experienced in the course of his lifetime have contributed to the legend of Elvis. He is a larger than life figure, and has managed to stand the test of time unlike any other icon of his time. It's no surprise that a biopic about him would be made, and there are few directors that seem better suited for it than Baz Luhrmann. Luhrmann is a rather polarizing director, as his manic brand of filmmaking can be off-putting to some. Sometimes his creative flourishes work wonders, and other times they fail spectacularly. I would argue that he is one of the most ambitious directors working today. He has such a boisterous directorial style full of color, music, and bold creative choices, and he tends to take on massive projects that allow him to go big, for better or for worse. Between his ambition and creativity, and Elvis's legendary status, a Baz Luhrmann directed biopic about Elvis Presley has the potential to be a match made in heaven. The film does hit a lot of the same beats that many other musical biopics have, but in typical Luhrmann fashion, he gives us a messy, yet admirable portrait of the King of Rock 'n Roll that makes for a vibrant cinematic experience.
Over the years, countless music biopics have been made and they largely follow the same structure. Elvis is no exception, as his story begins with him being discovered by Colonel Tom Parker, and quickly becomes one of the biggest musical acts of all-time. We also get to see the highs and lows of his career, as well as the struggles he faced with addiction, his health, and his relationship with his wife, Priscilla. On a script level, the film is rather standard. If you are familiar with the life of Elvis, you will be able to recognize some of the major events that happen, and can pretty much see where the film is going for the most part. However, the film zooms through a lot of his life and career, and is so fast-paced that everything comes at you seemingly at once. Given that this film is 159 minutes, this is probably for the best, as a slower pace might make the film feel longer. The film already suffers from feeling a tad too long as is, so slowing it down might make this worse. But on the other hand, I do wish that the film would have stayed in certain moments for just a bit longer, as it could have made a bigger impact, but I digress.
Despite the script being more or less what one would expect, the film soars thanks in part to Baz Luhrmann's bombastic direction. The film has so much of his trademarks, with big setpieces, whip-fast edits, and inspired music choices featured prominently throughout. This film is exactly what you hope a Baz Luhrmann directed Elvis biopic would be, as it is flashy and over-the-top, but it handles the tragic elements of Elvis's life rather well. Luhrmann is pretty great at conveying tragedy on screen, and this film is a great example of this. Sure, some of these moments may teeter on being melodramatic, but there are quite a few moments that feel surprisingly intimate and emotionally potent. On top of this, he captures the concert sequences spectacularly. They radiate with energy, and are shot so beautifully. There is one specific sequence where Elvis is performing in a stadium that may be among the best of Luhrmann's career in terms of how electrifying it is, and how he shot it. Those who are a little more averse to Luhrmann's directorial style might not be as into what he is doing here as I was, and not everything he does fully works, but I find it hard to deny that he is doing some great work here.
In any Baz Luhrmann film, there are two elements that you know are going to be impressive regardless of the quality of the movie, and those are the production design and costuming. Longtime Luhrmann collaborator Catherine Martin once again pulls double duty and does a stunning job in both departments as the film's costume designer and co-production designer alongside Karen Murphy. The film's costumes match the era, and the recreations of some of Elvis's most iconic jumpsuits and outfits are spot-on. The production design also recreates certain locales such as Graceland, the International Hotel, and the set of his famous Comeback Special, while including small details that make them feel more lived-in and less like replicas. The film has such a gorgeous, yet over-the-top look to it, which helps draw the audience into the film and to become more invested with Elvis's story.
Of course, with this being a movie about Elvis, you have to have a killer soundtrack to go with it. Several of Elvis's hits feature in the film, usually in the concert sequences, but the film also uses re-imaginings of them from contemporary artists throughout. This may come as a shock if you aren't accustomed to how Baz Luhrmann uses music in his films, but this is no surprise to anyone who is familiar with his work. Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby include anachronistic needle drops (albeit in much different contexts) and this film does the same by including them in the background of certain scenes and in transitions between them. Some of them do feel out of place, but some of them work better than you might expect. The film's score is quite good, at least, and takes some cues from Elvis's biggest hits and adds them into certain moments. The sequences that use Elvis's actual music are probably the best uses of music in the film, but the creativity from Baz Lurhmann and the film's music department is intriguing and gives the film a little more personality.
One of the aspects that I was concerned about going into the film was Tom Hanks's performance as Colonel Tom Parker. When I first saw the trailer, I wasn't sure what to make of the weird accent he is using, and I was worried that his performance was going to be too hammy and cartoonish to actually work. It didn't help that I knew he was going to be in heavy prosthetics, so I was a bit trepidatious about his involvement here. But somehow, Hanks doesn't feel too out of place here. Yes, this is a BIG performance from him, but it works fairly well in the context of the movie. The prosthetic make-up is a bit iffy, but everything else that he is doing is fascinating and matches the energy that Luhrmann is trying to achieve with the film. I hesitate to call this a good performance, but it is at least better than I was fearing it would be. I do think that having Colonel Tom be the narrator and having a fair amount of the story come from him is a strange choice, as it feels like the film is trying to redeem him. I feel like the idea was that he would be an unreliable narrator, which sometimes comes across, but it is a questionable choice overall.
The film's supporting cast is quite solid, even if the majority of them don't have all that much to do in the grand scheme of things. I can't be too upset about this given that the film is primarily focused on Elvis and his working relationship with Colonel Tom, but I wouldn't have minded if the film decided to explore some of these other characters a little further. I was particularly impressed with Helen Thomson, who plays Elvis's mother, Gladys. She truly makes every scene of hers count, and she has such a strong presence every time she's on screen. I also thought that Olivia DeJonge was great as Priscilla Presley, but she was a bit underused. She does get some great scenes in the film, but I wish that she had a little more to do overall. Kelvin Harrison Jr. may only be in a couple of scenes of the film, but he is excellent as blues legend B.B. King. It's a role that could have easily been a quick cameo, but he takes it and elevates it to be something more substantial. As for the rest of the supporting players, most of them really pop, despite not having much material to work with, although some of them get a bit lost due to how fast the film moves.
Taking on the role of Elvis is a tall order, but Austin Butler absolutely knocks it out of the park. Butler is better known for his work on Disney Channel shows, but after this film, I feel like his career will really take off. He is phenomenal on all fronts, as he captures a lot of Elvis's mannerisms, and is able to nail his speaking voice without it coming across like an impression. He sinks into the role so naturally, and portrays Elvis the performer and Elvis the person with such authenticity. The concert scenes are especially incredible, as he captures the raw energy that Elvis had, and is able to pull off his trademark dancing and hip shaking perfectly. He does Elvis justice as a performer, and shows us why he went on to become one of the biggest musical artists of all time. He also nails the film's more emotional scenes, and is surprisingly vulnerable. The only other film I had seen Butler in prior to this is Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood where he played Tex Watson. I thought he was pretty good there, but this is next level stuff. It is a genuine "star is born" performance that asserts him as an actor to watch. This isn't your average biopic performance, this is a fully realized portrayal of one of the biggest cultural icons of the 20th century, and shows that Austin Butler has the potential to be a major star, and if you ask me, he fully deserves to be one.
One of my biggest issues in the film is that it misses opportunities to explore some of the more controversial aspects of Elvis's life. Granted, exploring the problematic aspects of Elvis doesn't seem to be Baz Luhrmann's MO, but I felt that these could have been explored a little throughout the film. We see his struggles, of course, but while Elvis is held up as a legend, his legacy is a bit complicated when you really look at it. The film shows how he was influenced by black musicians and R&B music and how he incorporates these into his act. We see this primarily through Elvis watching legendary black musicians like Big Boy Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Little Richard perform, and then performing their music or taking influence from some of their performance styles. Some have argued that Elvis stole music and his stage persona from black artists, and I would have been intrigued to see how the film could have explored this. The film portrays this as more of a loving homage, which could be closer to the truth, but I still think it would have been interesting to see the film reckon with the possibility that it was theft. I also feel like the film lionizes Elvis a little too much, which makes sense to a certain extent, but it makes him look more infallible than he actually was. There is a segment of the film that touches on Elvis's connection to the Civil Rights movement, specifically how the death of Martin Luther King Jr. affected him. It tries to make him look like a hero for Civil Rights, which is a bit of a stretch. The fact that this plays out alongside Elvis lamenting his own career also comes across strangely, and the fact that the film portrays it in a positive light is highly questionable. It's not like Elvis was a total monster and that the film makes him look like a total Saint, but I felt that the film misses the opportunity to delve further into the more complicated aspects of his legacy.
While this film is flawed, I loved how big and bombastic it was, and felt that Baz Luhrmann's style took the film from being a run-of-the-mill biopic to a fascinating and engrossing tribute to one of the most successful recording artists who ever lived. Elvis is an exciting and energetic journey through the King of Rock 'n Roll's life and career that may not be super in-depth, but it is a true spectacle to behold. Austin Butler as Elvis alone is worth the price of admission, as he gives one of the best performances of the year, and quite possibly one of the greatest biopic performances of all time. Between him and Luhrmann's maximalist tendencies, this film is a bonafide crowdpleaser that should be a hit with fans of Elvis, and might even strike a chord with those who aren't as familiar with him. This film is big, messy, and dripping with spectacle, but it has a surprisingly strong emotional core that really makes this something special. The imperfections of the film do stick out, but what it does well, it does really well. Elvis is hands down one of the more fascinating biopics to come out in recent years, and despite its flaws, is one of the most entertaining films I've seen this year.