Musical biopics in Hollywood are always a relatable source of entertainment that’s the most straightforward research to come by. A hand full of them have already delighted audiences on some of their favorite musical artists, for the better or worse. A hand full of them already delighted audiences with some of their favorite musical artists, for the better or worse. We’re already getting one about Whitney Houston (I Wanna Dance with Somebody) later in the year. But favorites from Johnny Cash (Walk the Line), N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton), and Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody) have been praised, along with some inaccurate facts learned about later on. How did it take us this long to get a movie about the legendary “King of Rock and Roll” that isn’t something seen on television in the past or having actors do an impression? Yet, with writer/director Baz Luhrmann at the helm, there was no surprise Elvis would probably be unlike anything you’ve seen before.
The film explores the life and music of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), seen through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The story delves into the complex dynamic between Presley and Parker spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America. Central to that journey is one of the most significant and influential people in Elvis’s life, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge).
Surprisingly, this is the director’s first film since his hit 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. But his name alone made me worried about walking into this latest, which was announced in 2014. His lavish and frantic style of filmmaking isn’t for everyone, especially me. A very hit-or-miss director who made a name for himself with Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and the aforementioned The Great Gatsby, none of which I particularly liked. To tackle the history of one of the most legendary names in the industry, who died in 1977 at 42, he needs to make this a true standout and not fall into obscurity quickly. You’re paying a ticket to watch the typical rise to fame of one of the greatest singers ever to live, and with Luhrmann’s stamp of approval, I couldn’t believe I actually thought it was entertaining.
Maybe it was the first five minutes of him opening at the International Hotel in Las Vegas or those mild expectations after the reactions from the Cannes Film Festival in the back of my head. But you won’t be looking at Elvis as another conventional movie, as it wasn’t difficult to see why someone like Luhrmann was the right choice to make this come to life. All that mattered was wondering if this would portray his life to make me want to know more about him than I already knew. Of course, once you see his other previous work, you know exactly where it’s going. Yet, it’s a style rarely seen to tell a story about a man many grew up listening to and loving and still admire today. That two hours and 39 minute runtime can be exhausting and almost full of itself to keep the audience on their toes. And while there’s so much to take it, you ultimately stay glued to the screen with anything Austin Butler is delivering. Speaking of which…
Not everybody knows Austin Butler’s name, and he’s a familiar face when he pops up on TV shows. Probably his most memorable role before this was of Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For someone like him to take on Elvis Presley takes so much pressure to make it all worth it. And what an incredible performance he pulled off. When I watched him on screen, Butler became him without blinking an eye. He completely nailed his voice, looks, mannerisms, and conviction, which made me believe they brought him back to life. Every time he’s on stage belting the tunes and causing women to lose their freaking minds when swinging his hips, it will have people in awe in a very committed transformation I didn’t doubt for a second. Nobody else would’ve done this role justice. His performance overall is right up there, with Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody that oozes unforgettable. I really hope his career takes off after this, which seems to happen already since he’ll later be in the upcoming Dune: Part Two.
Playing the second important role in the film is everyone’s favorite Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. Just from the trailers and images of the promotions, I didn’t quite know how to feel about him after it was over—being the villain from our perspective and the narrator of this here story since it opens with him. A rare time to see him in a villain-esse role, yet I thought he was the complete opposite of his co-star. Parker is seen as a one-dimensional character who is easy not to root for when he’s this slimy manager who believes he can make Elvis change the world. He actually kept him from touring overseas because he has a shady past, making him trapped in a cage in Vegas. Hank’s performance never reached the level of good for me underneath the distracting makeup and accent I couldn’t make out throughout. Was it trying to be Dutch?
The storytelling aspect is when it always gets tricky because it gets the job done by telling you everything or leaving out details that couldn’t make it in. That includes the fast-paced montages stylistic to the point of wondering if this is the same movie. But, if you’ve been a history buff about Elvis, it played out how it usually would keep the flow steady enough. Sometimes, though, the script can be a little messy in trying to know where we are in the timeline of his success in cramming everything in, including his music, acting career, and his residency in Vegas in the latter half. The one thing I’d hope they acknowledged was knowing if this mentioned if Elvis was accused of stealing music from black artists and making them his own, resulting in why some people aren’t fans and question everything I know. A few songs I knew were covers, but you can see his influences were brought up heavenly with his passion for the blues and rock. This is why covers like “Hound Dog” mean much to him or his friendship with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). It’s a movie about the toxic relationship between him and Parker. It doesn’t focus too much on the supporting characters, mainly his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) and his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).
I’ll just say it wasn’t the emotional impact I hoped for. And I actually enjoyed DeJonge’s performance (really love to see more of her). Still, they didn’t give her much to do after she first met Elvis before marrying in 1967 and welcoming their daughter Lisa Marie a year later. And this tells how this man dreamed of becoming a singer and being surrounded by a world of those who see him differently. He was a famous singer who was pretty controversial for his part in music and getting in trouble with the law for telling it how it was. But, because Butler was giving all that he could do with this persona, he made Prestley a human and just looked at him as a man with a heart and wanted to perform what he loved. A part of the film I didn’t think I would love was Elvis making his comeback with his TV “Christmas” special and showed the Colonel his way with a beautiful performance of “If I Can Dream” in response to the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
And I’ve always been a fan of his music, and I still don’t know if Butler was actually singing, lip-syncing, or a blend of both because he demanded that fuel that boosts of energy with every scene. The concert sequences alone had this feeling of excitement, and just the opening of him singing “An American Trilogy” legit gave me goosebumps. If this was the best to get the audience to travel back in time to see Elvis live, then mission accomplished. I also must credit Oscar-winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin for recreating the colorful costumes he wears. These biopics make me feel like it’s possible to perform on stage, but I don’t want to be in total exhaustion and come to drug addictions.
But the editing and Luhrmann’s direction made these moments feel huge and loud to showcase Elvis’ presence, making everyone obsessed. Even for the soundtrack, which rarely worked for me in the past, there were only a couple of modern hip-hop songs that were distracting. However, I was glad it wasn’t overused, thankfully. Some familiar faces you’ll also hear, including Doja Cat, Kacey Musgraves, and Eminem ft. Cee Lo Green, we hear the latter during the end credits. Måneskin also covered a sweet cover of “If I Can Dream.” What are my top 3 favorite songs from Elvis? “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “Burning Love.”
I didn’t necessarily feel it for those two and a half hours. While it wasn’t one I loved after it was over, there’s confidence in saying it’s the best film from the director and certainly going to be the most re-watchable of his filmography. For fans, it will be easy to recommend, but your reaction to how you feel about his previous work depends on his style and substance. It’s a film that could land a few nods around awards season. Though if possible, I would say it’s worthy of a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Elvis shows director Baz Luhrmann taking the traditional musical biopic and puts an energetic twist on a film I surprisingly enjoyed! Overlong, for sure, but its frenetic style works. Austin Butler’s performance is incredible, capturing the spirit of the King of Rock and Roll.
Elvis is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 159 Minutes. Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking. Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures.