I’m normally not a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s films. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) Moulin Rouge!, where the director’s overheated energy worked well with the material. Not so much Romeo + Juliet, and especially not Australia and The Great Gatsby. (No one has made a successful film of that book yet.) But Elvis is something of a glorious mess, with very strong strengths and painful weaknesses. Fortunately, the director’s over-the-top style mostly works with the story here.
First of all, this is not a biopic. Huge portions of The King’s story are left out. There is no Ann-Margret, very little in the way of his Hollywood films, and nothing of his only Grammy-winning records, which were all in the “Inspirational” category. No, this is, for good or ill, a story seen through the lens of his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, played, for good or ill, by America’s favorite actor, Tom Hanks.
Seeing Elvis’s story through Parker’s lens doesn’t seem the best way to tell it, as Parker is a confusing character, played here as conniving and manipulative, but embodied by the actor with the kindest persona in the country. We’re not sure how we are supposed to feel about him, as his actions are generally deplorable and distancing while being delivered by a man we love and trust. Plus—and this is hard to say—Hanks is both miscast and unable to nail the character. His accent is wavering (Parker was Dutch), and while Parker is something of a force, he is not so much a real character here. Hanks is a wonderful actor in general, but he can’t do everything, and this may stand with his work in The Ladykillers as his biggest misstep. My guess is that he will up for an award for this performance, but it’s likely to be a Razzie.
Someone who will definitely be up for many awards, and may win several, is relative newcomer Austin Butler, who plays Elvis in the film. Some may remember him as Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but this is his breakout role. Technically, the performance is amazing, as he channels not just the moves but the specific energy of Presley in his performances. That’s also Butler’s singing voice that we hear in the early songs of the singer’s career, and then it’s a combination of Butler and Presley. Even then, Butler’s lip-synching is near-perfect—something only a real singer can pull off.
But beyond that, Butler brings Elvis’s painful sensitivity when needed, as well as his tenderness and occasional harsh selfishness. When Parker stokes the flames of Elvis’s ambitions, we believe Butler. When Elvis speaks of being lonely, we also believe Butler. This is a dazzling performance, and Butler works as hard as Elvis ever did. Being a Luhrmann film, there are many quick and colorful montage sequences, each with Butler in a different outfit performing in different venues. The number of camera set-ups is astounding, and Butler gives his all even in the very short clips that make up these sequences.
A strength of the film, and perhaps its greatest contributing factor to the Elvis story, is the insistence on our understanding of where his musical influences lay. Gospel music (specifically of the classic Pentecostal variety) and African-American rhythm and blues were the elements that got married and produced an Elvis. If this sticks in our collective imaginations regarding The King, the film will have positively added to the legend.
The biggest flaw of the film is structural, with Parker’s perspective supposedly arranging and contextualizing what we see and hear. But with Elvis the man, and especially as delivered by Butler, the film wants to be about Elvis first. Instead, we get what feel like unwelcome interruptions from a man who exploited him, and a man we don’t quite understand (and we’re not even sure we want to). If the film were to be about Parker front and center, that would have been another film. But the film is Elvis, not Colonel Parker. So the structure works against the forces that are the legend himself and the strong central performance of Butler.
As usual with a Luhrmann film, there is glitz for miles, exhausting energy, and a superficiality that usually doesn’t serve the material, but does here. Don’t go expecting a real understanding of Elvis, and don’t expect subtlety when reductiveness and excess will do. (E.g., Elvis being the “white singer who sounded black” might be true, but the reality is more nuanced than that simple statement.) Be warned that there are number of inaccuracies in the film, such as his relationship with B.B. King, exactly why he went into the Army, and Parker’s reasons for wanting to keep Elvis in Las Vegas (just Google the idea). The film needs to keep things simple, if also simplistic, to keep things moving.
Catherine Martin (aka Mrs. Luhrmann) again provides flashy production design and costumes for the film, as she did (and was Academy Awarded for) with Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. It’s a sure thing she’ll be nominated again, and may well win. Both are beautiful, and perhaps more important in awards season, attention-getting. (That pink outfit Elvis wears early in the film may well go down in film history along that green dress Keira Knightley wears in Atonement).
When I first saw Moulin Rouge! in the theater, the first twenty minutes were so visually and aurally stimulating that I almost walked out. The film finally calmed down. Elvis does have its quiet moments here and there, but it really never calms down. It’s essentially a high-energy gloss on the life of a legend, and don’t go in expecting anything approaching documentary truth. It’s an Elvis amusement park ride, but except for Hanks and the character he plays, it’s a wild and enjoyable ride. And you can’t miss what Austin Butler does here. He alone is worth the price of admission.