Time: 159 Minutes
Age Rating: Drug use
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley
Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker
Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley
Helen Thomson as Gladys Presley
Richard Roxburgh as Vernon Presley
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Elvis Presley rises to fame in the 1950s while maintaining a complex relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Elvis was a movie that intrigued me leading up to its release. I’ve only seen three of Baz Luhrmann’s movies, I enjoyed his divisive adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but straight up disliked Moulin Rogue and Romeo + Juliet (which are generally liked by people). I just couldn’t get into his style and while I liked some aspects, Baz seemed to be just a filmmaker whose style just wasn’t for me. Then after a very long time since his last released movie, it was announced that he would be making a new movie, that being a biopic of Elvis Presley. I’m not big on music biopics and I’m not big on Baz’s movies but somehow them being combined intrigued me greatly. I was curious to see how Luhrmann would approach it and at the very least, he would provide the movie with a distinct style within a subgenre that’s generally repetitive and dull. So I’m happy to say that I ended up liking Elvis far more than I thought I would.
I wasn’t familiar with Elvis Presley beyond a few of his songs, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie, overall I was satisfied with what we got. During its first act I wasn’t sure about how I would feel about the film, it was just leaving us to come to grips with Baz’s style. That being said, I feel like the movie hit its stride after 30 minutes. At this point we really see Elvis, his upbringing, and his rise to fame. The movie does contain music biopic tropes in the sense that it has familiar rise and fall aspects, but that is just about impossible to avoid when the movie is based on the subject’s true life. Elvis isn’t the most complex of music biopics, there is certainly more emphasis on the spectacle and getting the spirit of Elvis. But for what it is, it works. I much prefer the movie capturing the spirit of Elvis over feeling like a Wikipedia page converted into a movie. The film really doesn’t have much of a structure; it more feels like a bunch of events and sections of Elvis’s life strung together and relying on the audience to be riding the high of the vibe. If I watched it again, I’m not sure I would enjoy it as much, but on my first viewing I liked it. It helps that there is a contagious and consistent energy throughout. I also found myself engaged with what was happening with the story, I even found myself emotionally invested. There are some questionable choices with the way that Baz Luhrmann decided to tell the story. These help to make the movie interesting at least (and distinct compared to the other music biopics out there), but there are still parts which I wasn’t entirely on board with. Probably the weirdest choice is the way the story is presented. From the beginning, it is narrated by Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker as he presents his side of the story, and it’s like this throughout. It is an intriguing narrative decision, but I’m not really sure what the point of it was by the end. If Luhrmann were that insistent on having a narrator, I would’ve preferred it to be a random unknown person instead of making it Hanks. It is a very long movie at 2 hours and 40 minutes long, and in some ways, it pays off as it is trying to tell 42 years of Elvis’s life. But with Baz’s style, it can be an admittedly overwhelming and exhausting experience.
One of the best parts of the movie, if not the best part is Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, who is absolutely fantastic. He fully embodies the Elvis persona from beginning to end, with the movements, mannerisms and lines. Not only does he talk and sing like Elvis, but he also captures his essence well. He also shows such range; even though the movie could be very theatrical and flashy, the movie slows down at times to provide Butler moments to really shine with dramatic scenes. It was also interesting seeing Austin Butler evolve and grow older as Elvis did. Other actors are good including Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh who provide good supporting work. There is one other key actor alongside Austin Butler which I haven’t talked about yet, and that is Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis may have had raving reactions when it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival, but the one aspect that not everyone was on board with was Hanks’s performance. Having seen the movie, I can see why. I’m not sure I’d say that it’s a bad performance because Hanks certainly sells the sleaze aspect and its one of the rare times where he plays a villain. That being said, it is a strong contender for Tom Hanks’s most questionable acting work ever. He’s very cartoonish and evil, it’s like he was playing the role like a typical Baz Luhrmann villain (see Richard Roxburgh in Moulin Rouge for reference) than a real-life person. I guess that might work in some respects, but it has its issues. It’s a bit jarring when most of the other characters are fairly grounded especially Butler’s Elvis, the latter is giving a very realistic and believable performance, whereas Hanks is very close to morphing into a cartoon villain at many points. Its worth noting that if you dislike his performance, you might have a hard time with the film considering that he serves at the narrator.
This is a Baz Luhrmann movie, and his style is very much not for everyone, you love it or you hate it. The frantic camera movements and editing can be a bit in your face. As for me, its hit or miss, but for whatever reason, it worked this time for me. I have heard some people say that it is Baz at his fullest Baz, and I’m not disputing that. It was a real experience watching it in the cinema, from the over the top and dazzling visuals to the loud sounds and music, it actually felt like you were in a concert. The musical sequences were very entertaining to watch, Baz particularly excels here. Occasionally there will be the odd modern song which feels out of place here, but that’s to be expected given the director. Admittedly the movie can be overwhelming at times, especially toward the end I felt quite worn down and tired from the whole thing. For what its worth though, this might be the director’s most accessible film.
Elvis was pleasantly surprising. It is another music biopic with some of the typical failings, and it can also be a bit overlong, messy and exhausting at times. However, it is made energetic, chaotic and entertaining with Baz Luhrmann’s stylish and fast paced direction. Not to mention, I was actually engaged with the story. Even if you’re like me and don’t generally vibe with Baz’s style I do think it’s worth checking out, at the very least for Austin Butler’s excellent performance as Elvis Presley. As far as music biopics go, this is likely among the best.