Director Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo+Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby”) dials the notches up to 11 to tell the chaotic and electric story of Elvis Presley’s (Austin Butler) rise to unprecedented super-stardom to sudden tragedy in this exuberant biopic “Elvis.” Delving into the many stages of Elvis’ career, from a hip-swiveling sex symbol to a B-movie superstar, to an irrelevant has-been, to the comeback King of Las Vegas, and finally to his tragic death at the young age of 42. Demonstrating the rollercoaster ride of a career. This film will leave you falling in love with Austin Butler’s performance as the king.
The movie is told through the lens of Elvis’s controversial manager and master manipulator, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who’s depicted as an unreliable narrator because that’s what he was in real life. He wasn’t a Colonel nor a Parker. He was an illegal alien that suspiciously entered the U.S. The story is essentially about the complicated relationship between Presley and Parker, spanning over 20 years. Hanks, in a fat suit and tons of prosthetics, is unrecognizable. Especially considering he speaks with an accent that’s attempted to come off as Southern. Hanks puts tons of effort into the role; however, his character is the film’s weakest aspect.
When Parker became Elvis’ manager, he took over 50% of his earnings, including several years after Elvis’ death. While the narrative paints the Colonel as the villain, he’s trying to convince us he’s not the story’s villain. You question his motives when you see him making side deals behind Elvis’ back to fill his pockets or cover his gambling debts. Parker, in every situation, is looking out for himself first. It’s hard not to argue Parker was a significant reason for Elvis’ success. We are the same, you and I,” Parker says at one point in the film. “We are two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity.”
Austin Butler is electrifying as Elvis, bringing the icon to life with explosive energy in the spotlight while on stage, but also tones it down by adding a layer of empathetic humanity and vulnerability. You can take a breath in relief the first time Butler sings, knowing he has what it takes. Butler nails the voice, the singing, and eccentric dance moves that make you believe you’re seeing Elvis, not an actor. The idea that Elvis’ lower-body wiggling was borderline illegal is hysterical. I’m pounding my fists, campaigning for best performance this Oscar season.
The script tries to show how deeply ingrained Black roots music was that inspired Elvis growing up in Tupelo and Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis lived in a prominently black neighborhood during an era where segregation was a huge issue. Since Elvis lived in this neighborhood, he didn’t see race. His friends and neighbors were black, and he also attended black churches. At a young age, Elvis was exposed to various music genres. Country, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues – were mainly performed by black artists. It was not mainstream in the United States yet, which is why Elvis is pivotal in American culture.
Costume/production designer Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife, brought Elvis’ eccentric wardrobe to life on the big screen. Showcasing his many memorable outfits. The soundtrack features all the classic Elvis hits, with a modern twist to them.
On the one hand, the film is energetic, vibrant, and challenging not to be entertained, but it does breeze through Elvis’s life at breakneck speeds. It allows Baz to go all out on the flashy, quick editing sequences that are frustrating. Every scene is a hard-hitting pivotal moment in his life. You don’t have any downtime to see what kind of person Elvis was as a father, a husband, or a friend. We only see him as a performer.
I also questioned how genuine the relationship between Presley and Parker was. In some moments, it felt like the Colonel deeply cared for Elvis, and in other moments he used him to his advantage. For instance, Parker defuses public outrage from Elvis’ scandalous performances by having Presley cut his hair, join the Army and appear in family-friendly movies to become an “All American Boy.” It’s not until the famous 1968 TV comeback special that black leather-suited Elvis finally rebels against the Colonel.
Contemporary hip-hop tracks were sprinkled in a couple of scenes, which completely threw off the narrative. It was a real head-scratching moment, but the director is known for doing this in his films.
“Elvis” is 2 hours and 39 minutes of screen-popping, vibrant-colored, fast-paced, high-octane film that serves as a Greatest Hits feature. Emphasizing Elvis’ love for the crowd and performing, that’s his happy place. The film does achieve its goal of giving the audience a deeper appreciation for Elvis. A star is born in Butler.