Few entertainers in history have been known by a single name; Bowie, Madonna, Prince, Cher, Beyoncé but none compare to Elvis. While Hollywood was not kind to the movie the legendary entertainer starred in, the performer always knew how to put on a show and that larger-than-life persona is perfectly encapsulated in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. Thanks to a powerhouse performance by actor Austin Butler, Elvis is sure to change the concept of biographical musical films.
In Elvis’ 42 years on Earth, the man lived several lifetimes; from humble beginnings in Mississippi to finding instant success with rock and roll music in the Memphis scene, creating controversy on television and joining the Army to finding love and becoming disillusioned with a film career while finding renewed success thanks to the ’68 Comeback Special. Any moment in Elvis’ career would have made for a brilliant film but Baz Luhrmann also took on writing duties and opted to tell most of the entertainer’s life over the span of 159 minutes.
Luhrmann was the ideal choice to direct a film of this magnitude after directing William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge! Thanks to clever placement of location markers and time indicators, Elvis feels more like an immersive experience than the revisionist ramblings of Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Colonel Tom Park. The dichotomy of Elvis and Parker is at play throughout the entire film as Parker sees Elvis as little more than a money machine than a man with his own hopes and insecurities. Even when Elvis is told repeatedly to fire Parker, he continues to unconditionally trust him as he believes the Colonel really does have his best interests at heart.
Framing the story from Parker’s perspective gives the film a bittersweet feeling as speculation has remained to this day about the role Parker played in overworking Elvis prior to his tragic death in 1977. Elvis is the hero of the film; Parker is the villain and telling the story from the villain’s point of view would be like having the Joker appear on a talk show to discuss all of the people he wanted to kill but couldn’t because Batman stopped him.
Like all music biopics that have come before, events and timelines and condensed, characters are either combined together or omitted entirely. More attention is paid to Elvis rather than his backup band who were incredibly talented musicians in their own right and Colonel Parker’s wife is omitted entirely from the film. Not everything can be portrayed as they occurred as this is the common pitfall in adapting the lives of musical icons for Hollywood.
At least for the film’s first act, special attention is paid to Elvis’ love and appreciation for African-American recording artists like B.B. King and Little Richard. Elvis is shown to be inspired by gospel revival events as well as the lesser-known musicians who were prevented from reaching fame and fortune due to the color of their skin. These relationships ultimately do not factor into the entire film as the acts can be summed as Elvis the musician, Elvis the entertainer and Elvis the legend.
There is also the issue of length for the film. Conceivably, Elvis could have ended following the completion of the ’68 Comeback Special as it reestablished Elvis as one of the best entertainers and shows him as the happiest he ever will be as his wife smiles at him and he has returned to playing the music he loves. Ending the film following the Comeback Special would have omitted the later portion of Elvis’ life of overeating, health issues and drug addiction. This portion of his life has become subject to many years of conspiracy theories and parody that has far outpaced the tragedy. His divorce from Priscilla is also a much smaller part in the story as the breakup of his marriage and the removal of his daughter deeply wounded him and potentially was the catalyst for his downward spiral towards his death.
Austin Butler’s performance is magnetic. His portrayal of Elvis is on par with other legendary music biopic performances like Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Foxx and Rami Malek. He perfectly captures Elvis’ voice, intense stare, stage presence and all of his mannerisms as he rose to the challenge of playing one of music’s all-time great icons. Contrary to Butler’s performance is that of Tom Hanks. He certainly does a good impression of the infamous manager/con man, it is difficult to see Hanks inhabiting a character with less than ethical intentions for a young musician.
Elvis shines by leaning into the spectacle of Elvis’ performances but the constant back-and-forth between Elvis, his friends, family and Colonel Parker are exhausting by the time the credits roll but the main draw of the film is Austin Butler who is poised to ascend to super stardom as he is set to appear in the highly anticipated Dune: Part Two scheduled for release in November 2023.
VERDICT: 4 pink suits out of 5