Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Jeremy Doner, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce
Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey, Dacre Montgomery
Another year, another biopic based on a famous figure from musical history. This time, the legendary Elvis Presley has his life portrayed for the first time in a theatrical film and is given the unique Luhrmann treatment. It’s no secret how tumultuous Presley’s life was, specifically during his career, making it perfect fodder for filmmakers to create and audiences to watch. With the success of other biopics based on musicians, thinking particularly of 2005’s Walk the Line based on the life of Johnny Cash and 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody based on Freddie Mercury and Queen, does Elvis join their ranks of success, or is it just an unabashed way to make money off the Presley legacy?
Told through the perspective of Elvis’s (Butler) disgraced long-time manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks), the film recounts Elvis’s life and career from his very humble and impoverished beginnings in Mississippi, where he grew up reading Captain Marvel Jr. comics, to the family moving to Memphis, Tennessee, where he became entranced and inspired by African-American music. We are guided through his “discovery” by Parker and fast meteoric rise to fame, the national disapproval he faced due to his onstage gyrating and the resulting sex appeal to young women, being drafted into the army, meeting his future wife Priscilla (DeJonge), and then continuing right on through his movie career to his Las Vegas residencies, his discovery of Parker’s true identity and betrayals and finally his untimely and devastating death.
If you are familiar with the (limited) works of Baz Luhrmann, you’ll be well aware of his overall cinematic style. For the uninitiated, a very basic description would be that Luhrmann often favours a fast-paced, somewhat over-the-top and glitzy panache counteracted with an emotional and very human story, and usually accompanied by a unique and familiar soundtrack (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby). On the flip side, he is also capable of a more toned-down affair, relying on story and character to get his message across (Strictly Ballroom, Australia), proving himself quite the versatile filmmaker. Elvis, Luhrmann’s sixth feature film, sits somewhere nicely in-between. It paces itself well through Elvis’s life, focusing on the most important (or dramatic) aspects, and pulls the more emotional moments to the forefront, giving us much of what drove Presley personally and artistically, the building blocks of his life and career. I thought it somewhat strange for the story to be narrated by Hanks as Parker, who is, for all intents and purposes, the villain in many ways, but we actually get a very insightful and intimate look into Presley’s life, sometimes with the feeling that we’re intruding on something incredibly personal. Luhrmann did a fantastic job of keeping it real while also giving us the kind of entertainment that Elvis was known for.
Stylistically, as mentioned, Luhrmann kept it relatively toned down for this one, which was a good call considering the subject matter and the reality of the events of Elvis’s life. But we were still treated to much of the pageantry that the King was famous for: his outfits, his mind-blowing performances, his stage presence etc., all aspects that made Luhrmann, in my opinion, the right director for the job. He can give us the juxtaposition of the “shininess” of Elvis, in his personality onstage as well as his famous wardrobe, alongside the turmoil in his own life. You can easily feel the escapism through the art production and the costuming too, which is a credit to the crew charged with bringing those aspects of Elvis to life. In spite of his fame, Elvis just wanted to do what he loved, and the film stayed true to much of that, focusing on who Elvis was and what made him so popular, and what continues to keep him popular today.
As challenging as it can be bringing a fictional character to life, it’s a whole different ballgame to work on a figure based on a real person. One thing I can say about Butler’s performance is that, if Rami Malek could earn an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (whether one agrees that he earned that or not), then there’s little doubt in my mind that Butler couldn’t achieve the same. The wardrobe and make-up departments did a sterling job of making him physically resemble the King, but the work he put into perfecting his accent, his mannerisms, his stage presence and personality (which, according to some sources, were said to be pretty accurate by Elvis’s daughter Lisa-Marie), go to show how incredible of an actor Butler is. It’s easy to get lost in the character and believe you are truly watching Elvis, or at least as close as we can get to the real thing. Sure, some scenes were a mix of Butler and Elvis thanks to modern technology, but overall he knocked it out of the park. I didn’t enjoy Hanks’s performance quite as much, feeling that the prosthetics and strange accent (which was, apparently, not quite true to life but more to make the character’s real origins more obvious) were a little too jarring, but he was still an easily dislikeable character, enough to make the pity for Elvis all the more prominent. DeJonge did a great job as Priscilla (even if they kept the age difference between Priscilla and Elvis mostly out of the story), and Thomson was excellent as Gladys Presley, Elvis’s protective and loving mother. The supporting cast overall did a super job in doing just that, supporting the main performance and weaving in everything that helped make Elvis who he was, for better or for worse, and contributing to Butler’s overall electric performance.
I personally felt a lot of things after watching this film. I was unable to catch it in the cinema, instead renting it on Prime Video at home, and in hindsight I’m glad of that because of just how intimate and personal the experience felt. I’ll admit that afterwards I lay down for a while, in the dark, contemplating a lot of things, like what it is artists go through and the general human experience that leads to the art we enjoy. It took a little while to process what I had seen, because although I have always been a casual fan of Elvis’s music and was somewhat aware of the events of his life, the film was a stark reminder of the real man, the human being that lived for his audience and died in a devastating way. I’ll be surprised if, over the course of the next ten, twenty, thirty years, the lives of other prominent and culture-changing artists who are no longer with us, such as David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and Prince, to name a few, don’t get the same kind of cinematic treatment, and if they can be on par with Elvis, and done just as respectfully, they could be just as well-received. But no one ever has been, and maybe never will be, anything like Elvis. In many ways, he will always be the King, and this heartfelt film will not let us forget that.