Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Premise: A biopic of musician Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). The film follows Presley’s rise to fame and his relationship with Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
What Works: Elvis is a Baz Luhrmann film and it is made with his characteristic energy and style. The editing on this film, both visual and aural, is astonishing craftsmanship and Elvis interweaves past and present in a way that feels associative but makes logical narrative sense.
The musical sequences are full of energy and Luhrmann makes the past feel contemporary. That’s especially true of the way the filmmakers emphasize the sexuality of Presley’s performances. His dancing was considered lewd at the time and the film conveys the visceral impact that Presley had on his young audience. The film also emphasizes the racial aspect of his music. At the time Presley was regarded as a white man playing black music which made him a dangerous figure in the eyes of some cultural and political leaders. The filmmakers embrace that quality of Presley’s music. Without saying it overtly, the film visualizes how Presley channeled the spiritual ecstasy of religious music and the raw sexuality of blues, combining them in a way that had a powerful impact on his audience. Elvis has an impressive central performance by Austin Butler in the title role. Elvis Presley has become a cartoonish figure in American culture but Butler gives him human dimensions and succeeds at both the dramatic and musical portions of the film, using the music to convey the character’s internal life.
What Doesn’t: Elvis is a largely superficial experience. That’s partly a result of the style. The movie plays as a 159-minute musical montage. There’s little room for the film to breathe and explore the characters. The superficiality is also a result of the storytelling The narrative remains within the familiar boundaries of show business biopics, following the rags-to-riches-to-rehab formula. The style and the storytelling compress everything in Presley’s life to a footnote, passing quickly though critical moments, and the movie doesn’t reveal anything new or novel about Presley’s life and work. The focus of the story is compromised. It’s divided between Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker and it ends up being about neither of them. Tom Hanks is miscast as Parker. He’s hamming it up but Hanks never disappears into the role despite the heavy prosthetic make up. The performance always comes across as Tom Hanks in a fat suit.
Bottom Line: Elvis is a bundle of contradictions. The film showcases extraordinary technical craft but in support of a cliché show business story. There’s very little happening below the surface but that surface is impressive.
Episode: #909 (July 10, 2022)