CAST: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Luke Bracey, Natasha Bassett, Patrick Sheare, David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Josh McConville, Kate Mulvany, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, Adam Dunn, Leon Ford, Charles Grounds, Yola Quartey, Alton Mason, Gary Clark Jr., Chaydon Jay
RUNNING TIME: 159 mins
BASICALLY…: The meteoritic rise of singer Elvis Presley (Butler) and his mysterious manager Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Like Elvis Presley himself, Baz Luhrmann is an absolute showman. His filmmaking style is kinetic and often chaotic, but no matter what you may have to say about his divisive approach (some love it, others hate how obnoxious it can get), it’s almost never boring. Luhrmann is someone who can inject heaps upon heaps of energy and pure spectacle into a narrative that is far less complex than it appears – Moulin Rouge! is a perfect example of this – and it will become so much more memorable than it has any right to be.
In a way, he’s the perfect person to make a movie about Elvis, another larger-than-life figure whose passion for showmanship and entertainment was unprecedented, and it’s one hell of an entertaining ride, even if (like most other Luhrmann projects) the style often outweighs the substance.
While the film certainly charts the life and times of Elvis Presley (played by Austin Butler), Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is narrated from the perspective of Presley’s long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), formerly a PT Barnum-like carnival hound until he discovers the alluring appeal of young Presley in the mid-1950s. After signing with Parker, Elvis’ career skyrockets to international stardom, but while a large chunk of life events are touched upon in the film (from his brief stint in the Army, to meeting and marrying a young woman named Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), to eventually his extended residency in Las Vegas), it is the core relationship between Elvis and the Colonel that forms its central hook, with the latter proving to be a pretty horrible influence over his younger client’s booming career and personal life.
While you can definitely tell that it’s a Baz Luhrmann film just by watching it, Elvis is also a music biopic that only a filmmaker like Luhrmann could make. The choices in editing, performances and soundtrack (among others) are certainly in keeping with something like Moulin Rouge! or his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but here a lot of it feels much more subdued by comparison, especially when the style steps aside after dominating most of the first act. You can tell that Luhrmann is passionate about the life story of Elvis Presley (he’s also credited as co-writer), and wants to cram in as much of it as he possible can into a nearly three-hour movie, but also tell it in a way that hasn’t been done before by other past Elvis biopics. Having someone like Colonel Tom Parker, a vilified figure in Presley’s life, narrate the film and its events from his point of view does provide an original angle, at least for a film about Elvis Presley, and it not only introduces the audience to an unreliable narrator for a life story that most probably know about by now, but also offers a potentially humanising side to a real-life figure who was probably not the most trustworthy guy in the business. It makes things much more interesting, with Luhrmann’s trademark kinetic style actually serving a purpose in this grand spectacle of a story as told by a character who, like their most coveted act, lived for the entertainment of crowds.
While Tom Hanks is already receiving some divisive responses for his rare villainous turn in this movie, he’s nowhere near as bad as some are perhaps making him out to be. It’s certainly an over-the-top performance, with Hanks draped in an unflattering fat suit and speaking with a strange Dutch-by-way-of-Roy-Rogers-cowboy accent for the whole film, but he never feels out of place in this wildly exaggerated take on historical events, and even compliments the larger-than-life approach that Luhrmann is already going for. However, this is most certainly Austin Butler’s film, and he absolutely shines as the man himself, perfectly nailing his charm, charisma, energetic feel for music (there are scenes where he looks downright possessed by the power of rock) and just about everything else; it helps, too, that in parts Butler looks almost identical to the actual Elvis Presley, so much so that the film could easily switch between dramatization and actual real-life footage without anyone being able to tell the difference. Butler is magnificent, easily carrying this film through the upsetting drama and turmoil that takes up a good portion of the later re-enactments, particularly the Vegas sequences where you can just feel the pain and frustration of this guy being forced to perform and perform and perform some more for the benefit of others, least of all himself.
Even at almost three hours, there are still sections of this movie which do go by without a whole lot of development; Elvis’ Army days, his time as a Hollywood actor, and some of the earlier embarrassment of his career are practically glided over, while there isn’t a whole lot of weight given to his relationships with family members, band members, or other musicians like B.B. King (played briefly by Kelvin Harrison Jr.). You do sometimes notice that there isn’t a whole lot going on underneath the heavy surface, which doesn’t make it quite as fleshed out as other stylish musical biopics like Rocketman, but at least the style is entertaining enough to carry the viewer even across the flatter moments of character development or drama. There’s still plenty to enjoy about this movie, from the fun performances to pointing out some of the anachronistic soundtrack cues, which even for those not so familiar with the life story of Elvis Presley can be all that one needs to enjoy a postmodern take on a music legend.
Anyone weary of Baz Luhrmann’s style most likely won’t be won over by Elvis, but all the flashiness and showman-like passion that he often brings to his movies does make it an unexpectedly suitable companion for a King.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Elvis is a stylish and bombastically entertaining take on the life story of Elvis Presley, told with trademark showmanship by filmmaker Baz Luhrmann whose style carries the film through its occasionally thin substance, as does the magnificent lead performance of Austin Butler who nails the mannerisms and charisma of the King of Rock ‘n Roll perfectly (with Tom Hanks giving some lively over-the-top support as the villainous Colonel Tom Parker).