Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is the best biopic I’ve watched in years! I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but here we are. Read on for my further thoughts.
There once was a mysterious music manager named Tom Parker. And one day, in the mid-50s, he discovered an up-and-coming talent with a voice from the heavens and hips from the devil. Together they would change the world.
If that description of Elvis Presley’s story sounds a little off to you, that’s alright. I thought so too at first. But it’s how Elvis presents the The King’s tale.
Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), is actually the film’s narrator, and most of its events are from his point of view. Elvis’ story is more about how Parker sees his “boy” than Elvis himself. And I find that fascinating! Because most biopics would predictably focus on their subject, and strip away the “myth” to reveal the every-day person underneath. Yet Elvis’ “every-day” person is treated as an inconvenient stepping stone to Parker’s grander ambitions. Elvis the man is constantly stifled by Elvis the icon, whom Parker and Baz Luhrmann market to the masses.
We aren’t shown much of Elvis’ life outside of Colonel Parker (or his presence looming in the background). I’d bet that’s an intentional choice by Luhrmann. Many of Elvis’ important life and career choices were influenced in some measure by Parker– either in harmony or opposition to him.
Here’s where the “Love it or Hate it” thing I mentioned in the title comes into play. Elvis’ character isn’t well-explored, if that’s what you want. But you get something arguably more interesting: a tragic portrait of a man who falls victim to his own legend– who could never fully be his own man or artist because that’s not the life that was chosen for him.
Luhrmann’s shallow examination of Elvis adds to the tragedy of Presley’s story in a meta way, since the narrative is told from Parker’s perspective. Elvis is the story Tom Parker ensured decades ago, where the “Snowman” trumps the “Showman”. Yet Elvis’ individuality fights to peak through the tale at every turn! I don’t know if the screenwriters’ handling of this story is brilliantly meta, or lazy and uninspired. But there are definitely narrative layers to unpack in this thing.
Elvis is a cautionary tale for people with natural talent. There are those who will latch on to artists and bleed them for all they’re worth. Colonel Tom Parker is a lot like the devil in old moral plays. Parker smooth-talked his way into Elvis’ life, made big promises, and preyed on Elvis’ naivete to own Presley’s soul. Then Parker did what he promised and made Elvis a superstar. But the personal cost to Elvis may not have been worth his successes.
Tom Hanks played Parker confidently enough to make me doubt my instincts about the character. I knew Parker was shady, but I was still taken in by the guy because he seemed so sure of himself. Hanks doesn’t often take on roles so morally questionable. But I wish he will do so more often after this!
Elvis’ energy is astounding! Maybe that’s because the film is essentially a 2.5 hour montage sequence? It’s OK if that description doesn’t appeal to you. The style won’t be for everyone. But it certainly grabbed my attention! It’s as if Baz Luhrmann channeled The King’s showmanship into his direction to create a glamorously unique presentation of a common music biopic story.
That said, Elvis’ second half lost some momentum. That’s where I felt its runtime drag. Here the film grew annoyingly reminiscent of other biopics I’ve watched, and slowly lost its fresh identity. Although, if I’m stretching, that assessment neatly lines up with Elvis’ state of mind at that part of the film. So maybe I just stumbled upon a clever stylistic choice? I just know the back half of Elvis wasn’t so good as its start.
Baz Luhrmann’s directing style is very in your face. Again: some will love it; others will hate it; most will think it’s strange but interesting. I believe Luhrmann set out to make this story feel like an epic. He succeeded there, for my money!
And my goodness does this film look incredible! Mandy Walker’s cinematography is stunning. The colours pop, composition is beautiful, and everything on camera feels alive.
The set design and costuming are also notable. Both of these exceptional elements immersed me in Elvis‘ time period better than most films manage. Somebody better win an award for those costumes in particular, because they’re stunningly rendered!
I’ve got a lot more to say, so I’m going to quickly mention two other performers: Helen Thomson and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Neither of them were given much screen time. But they made the most of their minor roles!
What of the main man himself though? Austin Butler became Elvis. His performance is incredible, to say the least; his singing is great; his moves are spot on. And he captured the proper vibe. Butler was perfect in this role! I’d say he does the legend justice. Austin Butler as Elvis is, as of right now, one of the greatest renderings of a real life person to cinema I’ve ever seen.
In case you’re wondering, I’ve heard that Butler’s actual voice is used in sections of the film. Young Elvis is all Austin Butler, while older Elvis’ voice was made using a combination of Butler and Presley’s singing.
Speaking of singing: Elvis’ style is juxtaposed with country singer Hank Snow’s in one of the film’s most effective editing choices. The scene takes place early in the film (early in Elvis’ career), during a tour where Hank Snow (David Wenham) headlines. Elvis sees Snow perform his songs for a tame crowd. I thought it was pleasant and enjoyable. The song was good and I was entertained. Then there’s a cut to Elvis’ performance, with his passionate singing and dancing and charisma. All of a sudden Hank Snow looked painfully dull. This editing choice seemed basic but served to highlight what made Elvis Presley so special. He was unlike the status quo in all the right ways.
I’ve been a casual Elvis fan for most of my life. But Elvis makes me appreciate him all the more! Whatever I think of this film as a critic, I can’t deny it turned me into a bigger fan of its subject matter. And that earns it some credit in my books!
Does Elvis sidestep or downplay The King’s less savory character traits and decisions? Sure. But I’m aware of the controversies surrounding his legacy and, while they’re worth acknowledging, I think a lot of them are overblown. Though Elvis’s relationship with his wife Priscilla, for example, is deeply problematic and worthy of more scrutiny than this film gives. Still I believe Elvis showed good character in most aspects of his life, from the stories I’ve heard. Not to say the good and bad balance out. But moral judgments are a very subjective thing. To each their own.
Music is a beautiful force with power to raise our spirits above the mortal plane– somewhere sensations defy explanation. Elvis seemed to operate on that level. Or he at least managed to channel it like few others.
Elvis Presley was more than a musician: he was an icon. He was the unlikely bridge between America’s racial divides with his blending of cultures– country with blues and gospel; he challenged social decorums, and values on sex; he inspired generations of performers with his effortless charm and showmanship. Elvis not only changed music culture, but American culture at large.
His talents brought all kinds of people together. And they still do. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a theatre so packed as mine was for Elvis. There was even a round of applause by the credits, which, in my experience, is unusual! I joined in too though, cause why not? This only shows that, 45 years after his death (longer than he was even alive), Elvis Presley is a draw.
Elvis is far from a perfect movie. But it’s great entertainment with a lead performance which will blow you away! And it gave me everything I wanted from an Elvis story, plus more.
Elvis resonated with me in unexpected ways, and I say it’s a Must See.
What’s your favourite Elvis song, movie, or performance? What did you think of Elvis? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,