Synopsis: A biopic of Elvis Presley, from his childhood to becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s while maintaining a complex relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Stars: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Running Length: 169 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Since his death at the age of 42 in 1977, the story of Elvis Presley has been told multiple times across countless media sources. Like The Beatles, who seem to come out with a new documentary (or documentary about a documentary about The Beatles), every few years, the fascination with Elvis hasn’t waned since the King of Rock and Roll left the building. A popular TV movie from 1979 directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell is still pointed to as an honest look into Presley’s life growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, before skyrocketing to fame, eventually cementing himself as a legend as a top Vegas headliner. In 2018, the 3.5-hour Elvis Presley: The Searcher debuted on HBO and was regarded as a respected final deep dive into the creative career of the performer.
Yet here we are in 2022 talking about Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, another biopic of the superstar, and you may be wondering why Luhrmann would spend his creative time and energy on a story ‘oft-told. Indeed, the director, known for his eye-popping dazzling visuals and talent for producing movies on an epic scale, could focus on an original project that would benefit more from the full force of artists he brings along with him. Right? That might all be well and true (and Baz, please follow this up with an original film again…please!), but then audiences would have been deprived of a rarity in biopics of this nature, a proper star performance.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all seen an Elvis impersonator once or twice in our lives or, shudder, curled our lips, swung our hips at some point in our misspent youth, and tried Presley’s croon and wiggle on for size. Yet there’s no mistaking the real deal, and once you’ve seen Elvis in old TV clips or movies, you recognize that the man had a talent nearly impossible to duplicate. Luhrmann miraculously found an actor who channeled Presley in shake, rattle, and roll, and it’s why Austin Butler’s performance is one for the record books.
The anticipation for Butler (The Dead Don’t Die) to make his first appearance as the singer is properly teased for some time by the narrator of Elvis, his former manager Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips). Though neither a Colonel nor even named Tom Parker, as we come to learn later, our tricky narrator with a hard-to-pin-down European accent introduces himself as the supposed villain of the piece…and then spends the next nearly three hours explaining how that perception is wrong (by showing how it’s really right). As Parker manages a dusty sideshow act, he’s tipped off to a young man raised among blacks with a voice that seems to be divinely given. Then he sees him perform…and the rest is history.
We also see that first history-making performance, and Luhrmann recreates that tense expectation with an expert hand. By the time Butler’s Elvis blasts out his first note and starts his famous dancing legs shaking, you as an audience member might be tempted to scream out as the crowd does uncontrollably. It’s that effective of an introduction, and while that’s partly a directing/editing accomplishment, you have to give proper credit to how Butler presents Presley in this early stage of his career to viewers for the first time. That understanding of Presley at each stage of his career is what cements Butler’s performance as a record-setting one, there’s an authenticity and almost heartbreaking dedication to the energy that’s coming out of the young actor, and I’d be shocked if Butler doesn’t just get nominated for an Oscar this year but easily sweep in and win it. Like Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy back in 2019, this is far more than an “impression” of Presley…it’s an almost mystical channeling of his spirit.
I wish I could say the same good news for Hanks. Stuck with a mound of prosthetics that make him look like the Penguin, his alpine slope nose and bulbous double chin only make his villainy that much more comically arch. In that way, he comes off like a Looney Tunes version of the bad guy instead of merely the dishonest businessman. The latter profited off of Presley to the extent that he had to continue working with Parker and his calvary of shady doctors so Parker could pay off his gambling debts. As is everything with Hanks, the performance is well-intentioned but rings false…perhaps too much of a stretch for the proto-nice guy in films.
Primarily, Elvis is a two-hander between Butler and Hanks, but a few other cast members manage to make some impression along the way. Often erased from Presley’s overall narrative, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge, The Visit) comes off very well here. DeJonge gives her an air of sophistication and strength in this limited time, leaving a lasting impression. As Presley’s parents, I liked seeing Richard Roxburgh (the Duke in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) playing with imperfection and weakness, especially alongside an unrecognizable Helen Thomson, who knocks it out of the park as Elvis’s beloved mama.
Almost like he can’t help himself, Luhrmann often gives himself over to excess along the way, but for this film, much of it set in the bright lights of Vegas, it works. The opening stretch can be a bit overwhelming as it quickly hops through multiple periods, however. Once the timeline slows down and stops jumping, Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) also start to calm down – though production designers Karen Murphy (A Star is Born) and Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby, who also did the costumes) never stop producing stunning period looks. Focusing more on the career part of Presley’s life leaves little room for the more personal moments, so adjusting your expectations for Elvis being a quick journey through highlights (and dang good ones) is necessary.
I’m jealous of those that were able to see Elvis Presly live onstage. I was born after The King passed away, and it’s why I take every opportunity to see a legend when I get the chance. You never know when time will take a talent like that away. I’m grateful to Luhrmann’s Elvis for recreating some key moments with Butler standing in for the late singer. You get the feeling you’re seeing a good idea of what that experience of seeing Presley must have been for the public who adored and understood him. Priscilla and his daughter Lisa Marie wholeheartedly endorsing the film is another sign that Luhrmann and Butler made The King proud.