Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is in the building, but is Austin Butler worth of the rhinestone jumpsuit?
Where do you start with Elvis Presley? Do you look at the legions of mourning fans who faithfully make annual trips to Graceland, forty-five years after his death? Do you look at his, ultimately doomed, Hollywood career? His Vegas residences? His love life; army life; family life? There is a wealth of memories and nostalgia wrapped up in his presence – stories that have been greatly exaggerated and songs that have enduring messaging.
Director Baz Luhrmann seems like the perfect visionary to capture the colour and chaos of Elvis “the brand”. So it’s interesting that he’s chosen to unravel this biopic through the eyes of Colonel Tom Parker – the King’s much-maligned manager. It’s a rag-to-riches story that sees Elvis as a young boy growing up within the African American community in Tupelo, Mississippi, become the jumpsuit-wearing music icon that many still revere.
Elvis is a biopic with a beat. There’s a consistent thrum that ripples through everything you see on screen. It adds tension; it adds rhythm; it adds vibrancy. Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks) is the narrator of the story, but it’s in no way skewed in his favour. If anything, all of his shady dealings and trickery are laid bare to be fully judged. Despite some extremely emotional and poignant moments, this is not a sob story either. It’s a biopic that is so full of life. There are swirling aerial shots of Vegas; talking newspaper covers; Elvis-themed slot machines to show off costume changes; dotted lines on a map as we travel across the US with the King. That beat never stops.
Musical director Elliot Wheeler offers up remixes of certain Elvis tracks. (Something that you’d imagine Elvis would totally be on board with as he loved to reimagine contemporary music.) These are used far more sparingly than you’d imagine for a Luhrman film, with Presley’s impressive musical catalogue being maximised throughout. The brass, pluck and tremor of specific songs contribute to that overall heartbeat. Catherine Martin’s costume design is every bit the technicolor fever dream that you would hope it to be. She takes us from the early days of zoot suits and tumbling forelocks to tight polo necks and shiny quiffs to the dazzling array of Vegas costumes.
The two lead performances are absolutely crucial to the film’s success. Who could have ever imagined Tom Hanks as a snarling bad guy? Here, Luhrmann and Hanks have created nothing short of a pantomime villain. Parker spends the film, quite literally, lurking in the shadows. He’s always appearing from behind stage curtains or hiding around corridors. It’s an unsual performance from Hanks as it really does feel two-dimensional but it works in the context of the film. He’s an unashamed trickster conman who has the Presley family over a barrel from the first contract they ever signed. At one point – as Elvis is being heckled away by the police on the grounds of “lust and perversion” – Parker screeches “Protect the merchandise!” You have no idea if he’s talking about Presley or some posters.
But this is an Elvis film and we’re all here to see the main attraction. Austin Butler is unbelievable in the lead role. At times, in the live concert sequences, you would swear you were watching the King himself. Every nod, every thrust, every clenched fist is exacting. He captured the humour and playfulness that Presley brought to performing – a wry smile is never far from his face as women scream and throw their underwear at him. He showcases the genuine passion Elvis had for being on stage and – more importantly – the understanding he had of the power of music. The film touches on Elvis’ devastation at the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He knew that his music – which appealed to people of all races – could be a platform for change. The swell of If I Can Dream, from the ’68 comeback special, resonates now as it did then. It’s a really commanding moment in the film.
Butler delivers a performance that is more than just mimicry. In fact, for the early years, it is Butler singing. It’s only once Elvis starts to age that the vocals become a blend of his and the King’s. It’s a thoroughly physical performance. You would swear that the pouring sweat, the eye bags and the breathless exhaustion were all very real. Three big numbers – That’s Alright Mama, Trouble and Suspicious Minds – are executed perfectly in their choreography. Luhrmann creates a dizzying effect full of close-ups of that famous pelvis in action. It’s disorientating, adding to the screaming frenzy of the crowds.
At times, Elvis veers from biography to hagiography – there is no mention of Priscilla being fourteen years old when they met and no real effort to show the destruction of their marriage. But it stops just short of being sickly sweet. There is no doubt that this is sanitised version of the story, perhaps out of respect for the living rather than the dead, but we do still get to see temper tantrums, love affairs and substance abuse.
The film is a mix of Elvis the brand and Elvis the person and how, quite frankly, Tom Parker only cared for the former. As long as “his boy” got on stage to secure another check, he didn’t care what he was being pumped full in order to manage. The last images of Elvis – a blend of Butler and archival footage – are heartbreaking. The entire film is presented like a dream come true in vivid technicolor… these last moments feel more like a nightmare. Luhrmann does make you wonder what Elvis could have achieved had he ever been able to free himself from Parker’s clutches.
Cementing the enduring appeal of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis is a phenomenal piece of cinema fuelled by incredible performances, dazzling costumes and a perfectly curated soundtrack.
A bombastic biopic every bit as electric as Elvis himself.
Rating – ★★★★★
Elvis is now in cinemas.