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.