Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in Baz Luhrmann’s overwhelming Elvis Presley biopic
The man, the myth, the cultural icon; it seems insane that we’ve got to 2022 without a major motion picture about the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley and yet maybe the story was just waiting for the perfect director. Warner Brothers are hoping they’ve found that match with the king of excess himself Baz Luhrmann (Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge.) The buzz at the Cannes Film Festival Elvis premiere was high, so how does Luhrmann measure up to this tall order?
Elvis the film is narrated and told through the eyes of now vilified talent manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in heavy prosthetics) who discovered Elvis as a local country singer in Memphis, Tennessee and propelled him to become the global top selling solo artist of all time, (a record that Elvis still holds) movie star and Las Vegas legend.
Presley is played by up and comer Austin Butler. After a small appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood this is Butlers debut starring role, though he’s been acting since his teens as a Disney Channel star. Much of the film focuses on the relationship between the two, as in a tale as old as time Colonel Parker ruthlessly mismanaged his star, robbing him of both his money and his health. Many blame Parker for Elvis’ untimely death at the young age of 42.
It’s a somewhat uneven film that attempts to cover 30 years in the life of the star. The first act is a typical Luhrmann-esque bombardment of colour that shows Elvis’ early years in a mishmash of montage and animated graphics – it’s overwhelming and not necessarily in a good way, feeling like one long trailer or recap while we wait for the actual film to begin. Act one fails to give even emotional scenes any time to breathe (surely a little more time could have been found out of it’s mammoth near 3 hours run time) and early characters such as Elvis mother appear as mere caricatures, their writing defying understanding or empathy.
Once we get to his middling years though (Elvis signing to a major label and making big television and movie appearances) the film really starts to come into its own. Butler is absolutely electric in the live performances, embodying Elvis with such charisma and physicality that he oozes pure magnetism. At the end of the “68 comeback special” sequence I actually felt my palms itching to applaud. An insane achievement for a film attempting to capture the indescribable atmosphere of real live music.
It also goes some way to remind a modern audience of just why Presley became and remains such an icon. For people around my age and younger the name Elvis surely conjures the image of the bloated, aging Las Vegas performer in the white jumpsuit. The subject of jokey costumes at stag parties the world over. But there was a time, a long time, where Elvis was a genuine rebel and sex symbol, skirting decency laws and crossing colour lines in the repressed and outraged American South. Luhrmann has done his research and manages to capture the hysteria and moral panic surrounding Elvis’ rise to fame; it’s a decent piece of social history.
Mercifully, the film also dedicates a good deal of time addressing the influence of black music on Elvis and his work, a subject that has only become a hotter topic in the modern age. It depicts his childhood growing up in a predominantly black neighbourhood and falling in love with gospel music, through his teenage years hanging out in rhythm and blues bars and his friendship with BB King. Elvis is shown to be a massive fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard and Fats Domino (who all make appearances.) Whilst we might lament that those artists didn’t rightfully become bigger stars back in the day, the film at least attempts to give credit where it’s due when looking at the formula behind his fame.
Surprisingly, it’s Tom Hanks who is the weak part of this film. Overdone in prosthetics and hamming up a questionable accent, his cartoonishly evil villain creates an odd air of fantasy in what could have been a proper character study. Whilst Colonel Tom’s conniving is an important part of the Elvis story, I did question the decision to centre the film around him and amplify his voice.
Elvis himself isn’t really given anything to say other than talking about his passion for music and we the audience don’t really get to learn anything about what he thought or felt. A good example is the film touching on Elvis’ upset at the murders of Dr Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, but failing to provide any actual discourse about the civil rights movement. We’re teased with the idea that Elvis was real human man with real cares and concerns, but time and time again we are given the showbiz story rather than the human one as the film flits back to the shows and the costumes and the hair.
Straight away at Cannes there was buzz that Butler may follow Rami Malek to winning a Best Actor Oscar for playing a rock icon. I can see it being a worthy nomination, it’s a remarkable performance from Butler who truly becomes Elvis, and unlike Malek is actually doing his own singing (well, some of it; Luhrmann used Butler’s real voice for the ‘young Elvis’ performances and recordings of the real thing for his older years.) Much like with Bohemian Rhapsody I’m not sure there’s enough grit in the story to warrant the film industry’s highest accolade, but as we’ve seen before, the Academy won’t necessarily agree.
Despite some failings in its writing and editing, Elvis is undoubtedly a crowd pleasing success. For all that I might wish for more realism and less magic, the jaw dropping live scenes are enough to sweep the viewer up in Elvis mania and forget all their troubles. A film about the legend rather than the man, Elvis is a fantastical fairy tale that only elevates the legend of it’s star to even higher planes.
Elvis is out in cinemas on 24th June 2022
Looking to see what else is out this month? Check out June’s Most Wanted Movies