I’ve never owned an Elvis Presley album. I’ve never been to Graceland. I’ve never watched his famous “Aloha from Hawaii” concert. I’ve never cared for his movies. Yet despite all of that, I fully understand the greatness of Elvis Presley. I’ve always recognized his long-lasting impact on American culture. And you can’t help but respect his legions of passionate fans who truly love the man dubbed the “King of Rock and Roll”.
Though I’m not what you would consider a true fan, I do like a handful of Elvis’ songs and it’s hard not to be fascinated by the larger-than-life presence he still maintains, some 45 years after his untimely death. That’s a big reason I was excited for “Elvis”, the new biographical odyssey from director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann. For me, the name Luhrmann comes packaged with uncertainty. I enjoyed his take on “The Great Gatsby” more than most. But I’ve struggled to connect with his style-driven filmmaking and haven’t particularly enjoyed his other movies (in fairness, I’ve yet to see “Strictly Ballroom”).
“Elvis” is quite the undertaking, and while Luhrmann’s style is certainly present, it never overpowers the film or festers into overindulgence. In fact, it often energizes the movie in a way similar to how Elvis himself would energize a crowd. Most importantly, Luhrmann shows enough restraint to keep this about the man himself. As a result, we get a film that brilliantly captures Elvis’ outer grandeur but also his inner demons. Call it an exhilarating cinematic portrait of triumph and tragedy.
It can’t be easy taking on a lead role destined to be so heavily scrutinized. But Austin Butler not only takes it on, he gives a star-making turn that makes any qualms with his portrayal feel like nitpicks. It’s more than just a spot-on impression. Butler burrows into the very soul of Elvis, highlighting his many ups and later his devastating downs. It’s a tough ask for a young actor that’s made even tougher by Luhrmann’s feverish directing style. But Butler is magnetic in what is a nomination-worthy performance.
“Elvis” attempts to cover a ton of ground in its hefty 159-minute running time. From his poverty-ridden childhood to his final days pushing himself to perform despite his failing health. It makes many personal and career stops in between, never staying in one place very long (especially in the first half of the movie). I’m not sure how much will be new to the well-studied Elvis fan. But for people like me, there’s a lot to soak up. It’s like fever-pitch CliffsNotes for the Elvis uninitiated.
In an interesting move, Luhrmann and his team of co-writers (Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) choose to tell much of the story from the perspective of Elvis’ long-time manager and promoter Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks in various layers of latex and body suits). It’s framed as Parker on his deathbed, defending himself and his dubious reputation. Over the course of film, we’re asked the question: Was Colonel Tom Parker a villain or a visionary? The movie credits him as both, even making the case that Parker both made Elvis and killed him.
Col. Parker was a P.T. Barnum wannabe who saw gold in a good-looking young man from Memphis. Elvis was driving a truck by day to help support his family. When off work, he spent his time losing himself in the music of Beale Street. His long-held love for the Blues and African-American spirituals would forever shape his music. It was a song the younger Elvis recorded with Sun Records that caught the attention of Parker who quickly signed him and took him on his Southern tour which also featured country music artist Hank Snow (David Wenham).
Things take off in 1954 at the Shreveport-based Louisiana Hayride. That’s when Parker knew he had something special. Before long Elvis was his top draw. Parker secured his budding superstar client a deal with RCA Records, booked numerous television appearances, and tapped into the lucrative world of merchandising. Soon the “snowman” was raking in 50% of the “showman’s” earnings, taking advantage of Presley’s star wattage for his own personal gain
Luhrmann whips us through Elvis’ meteoric rise in popularity while also showing the harsh accusations of indecency and vulgarity he would face (The movie speaks to a deeper motive behind the outrage, namely Elvis’ connections with African-American music in the deeply segregated South). It touches on his short-lived tenure as a movie star, his triumphant comeback special in 1968, and his multi-year deal with The International Hotel in Las Vegas.
On the personal side, Luhrmann does a good job capturing Elvis’ closeness with his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson) and the loving yet businesslike relationship with his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh). He shows us Elvis falling for and eventually marrying Priscilla Beaulieu (a very good but underutilized Olivia DeJonge). We see his purchase of Graceland and the pride he took in being able to support his family. And of course we see his genuine love for music and performing which shines most whenever Elvis took the stage.
But there was also the dark side of Elvis’ story. Luhrmann shows the crushing loss of his mother; his disappointment in his father; the revelation of Col. Parker’s double-dealing. We see his marriage crumble, watch his health deteriorate, and witness his growing reliance on pills. It culminates in a heartbreaking yet undeniably beautiful performance of “Unchained Melody” from 1977, just days before his tragic death at the age of 42.
While Luhrmann’s direction is key, Elvis is most vividly brought to life through Butler who pours his heart and soul into his portrayal. Everything about his performance clicks, from the few quiet moments to the high-energy stage numbers where his resemblance to Elvis really kicks in. It leaves you wanting more screen time for Butler. Unfortunately too much of the focus is on Parker who is both narrator and a steady presence throughout. The performance is fine, but too often all I could see was Tom Hanks in prosthetics rather than Colonel Tom Parker. I wanted more Butler.
At times Luhrmann’s kinetic pacing can make things a blur. And it doesn’t allow you to settle down and get comfortable during any stop the story makes on the Elvis Presley timeline. Normally that’s something I would struggle with. But here it feels right, especially for such an electrifying roller-coaster of a life. To Luhrmann’s credit, his film had its hooks in me from its first moments. And even though I’m not a big-time Elvis fan, this movie brought him to life in ways I wasn’t expecting. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to plan a trip to Graceland. “Elvis” is now showing in theaters.
There are a few structural flaws and a whole lot that gets left out, but the film in large part works. I thought it was strongest early on with the connection between his love of gospel music and his emotionalism on stage. Elvis was not an act, we were seeing real electricity when we saw him perform. The film finishes big with the 68 special and Vegas sequences. Butler is great. It was hard to get past Tom Hank’s accent as the Colonel.
It’s something you rarely say, but Hanks was the weakest part for me. It wasn’t a bad performance, but too much time was spent on him.
I’m going to wait for this on TV/streaming as I do like Baz Luhrmann and THE KING but I heard it’s a mess and they don’t do enough with exploring Elvis as an artist. I still hold John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie in high regard for not just exploring some of the nuances but also in showcasing some of Elvis’ darker attributes like the fact that he’ll shoot a TV whenever Robert Goulet is on. Plus, it had Kurt Russell who just killed it as THE KING.
Plus, Keith baby… there’s 2 things you gotta understand. One, that’s THE KING and 2 LOOK OUT MAN!!!!! You see that, it’s called Karate. There’s only 2 kinds of people that know Karate. The Chinese… and THE KING.
I really think January 8 should become a holiday. Not just to celebrate the birthday of THE KING but also the birthday of Dr. Stephen Hawking and…. DAVID BOWIE!!!!!!
HaHa. We definitely get some of those “karate” moves in the movie. I gotta say, I didn’t find it a mess at all which really surprised me. I was sucked in from the start and left thoroughly impressed.
Is there a scene where he shoots the TV because Robert Goulet is on the TV?
Nope. They passed over that one.
Then what’s the fucking point of making a movie about THE KING if you don’t show that moment? BOO!!!!!
I heard the actor actually sang songs and conditioned his voice to sound like Elvis.
He sang songs himself, and I think they blended his voice with Elvis’ on other songs.
Great review! I’m seeing this movie tomorrow. Hopefully, I like it!
Thanks so much. It REALLY surprised me.
Interesting review. Most of my friends who’ve seen it have raved and were surprised by Butler’s performance. Sadly, the movie opened on a busy weekend for me, so I’ll be watching it on Saturday. I’m a huge Baz Luhrman fan, so my expectations are high.
If you’re a Luhrmann fan I think you’ll really go for this one. In a way I was really surprised. Hope to see it again this weekend.
I’m hoping to see this later in the week! And by the way – I finally saw Maverick a couple weeks ago and absolutely loved it.
Wasn’t Maverick a blast? I saw it twice and actually went back watched Elvis again yesterday. It holds up really well a second time around.
I actually wasn’t as big a fan as Elvis as I hoped I would be. I thought the story got a bit swallowed up by all the directorial gimmicks, and some of the camera work left me feeling a bit dizzy. But Austin Butler’s performance was stellar and I really enjoyed the music.
You know, I can see that. Baz’s style is usually not for me. I’ve often found him overbearing. But for some reason this one worked for me.
I didn’t like Moulin Rouge all that much either, but I definitely liked this one a little better than that! 🙂
Same here. I know MR has its fans. I am not one of them! 🙂
“I’ve never owned an Elvis Presley album. I’ve never been to Graceland. I’ve never watched his famous “Aloha from Hawaii” concert. I’ve never cared for his movies.” At least one of these should be required for American citizenship, kind of like serving in the military in Starship Troopers. But seriously, great review and thank you! I spent a significant amount of time during my young teenage years with Rick Stanley, so I have heard so much of what went on behind the scenes that he wouldn’t share publicly. I’m ready to see if some of those stories make it into the movie, or if the secrets still remain.
HA! My wife would 100% agree with you! But thank you for the kind words. I was really surprised by the movie. I’m anxious to hear what you think of it.
Keith, have never owned an Elvis album. Have seen some of his movies. Been to Graceland – actually lived in Memphis for almost a year. While there, I came to appreciate the passionate fanbase he enjoys to this day. Waiting for streaming on this one. I know some folks didn’t think Butler was a good choice, but I’m betting those folks wouldn’t have agreed with anyone who took the role. I was wondering what you thought of the timing of its release? Just thought it was odd to release it early summer. Looked like more of a “prestige” fall entry to me, but I guess in this age of streaming and Covid you can make an argument timing doesn’t matter unless its against a blockbuster entry.
I’m okay with its summer release. While I tend to be lukewarm on Luhrmann’s style, he does make the movie feel different than your run-of-the-mill prestige films. I was pretty impressed with “Elvis” – more than I expected to be. I’m interested to see if it has legs at the box office, especially with Top Gun: Maverick still performing well and Thor dropping this weekend.