Elvis Presley has been portrayed on the large and small screen many times before. However, none of them featured the flair of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, until now.
The story of Elvis (Austin Butler) in this biopic is told from the perspective of the performer’s infamous manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The movie begins with Parker on his deathbed and from there, the former manager recounts the events of his time with the singer, from when he discovered him to the performers final days in Las Vegas.
The movie showcases how Elvis’ popularity surged, his inspiration from African American musicians, his controversial stage movements and his attempt at a comeback after some down years. It also features the decline of his health during his time doing several shows in Vegas.
Musical biopics are aplenty in Hollywood. Films such as “Respect” about Aretha Franklin, “Rocketman” about Elton John, “Bohemian Rhapsody” about Freddie Mercury, “Get on Up” about James Brown and more have all been released in the last decade.
These films often follow a standard path, where the singer in focus has a rise to fame, a time at the top of their career, a decline because of addiction or other issues and an eventual resolution. This blueprint was even parodied in 2007’s comedy “Walk Hard.”
Luhrman’s “Elvis” does follow this plot layout quite a bit, showing Elvis’ quick popularity and his later decline. However, he molds it enough in a way that adds a bit more personality to the movie.
The film being told from Parker’s view adds uniqueness, where a clear bad actor is trying to make justifications for his poor management. Short sequences in between scenes where Parker is telling the story in a dark casino setting gives it a fantastical feeling, too.
The film is also benefited by its flamboyant visual style, as the glamour of Elvis’ career and the glitz of Las Vegas are dialed up to 11. There’s a grandness to how Luhrmann portrays the King of Rock, especially during the musical scenes which are large in scale.
One can also appreciate the time given to some of the historical factors that inspired Elivs and made him controversial. The movie shows how the performer was largely inspired by other African American singers of the time, and that his very inspiration by Black performers as well as his movement on stage became a source of anger in the Bible Belt.
These happened to be some of the more interesting moments in the film, as they go the farthest in exploring Elvis’ impact on America and how much of pop music from the era had origins in the Black community. Luhrmann doesn’t just give time to this aspect, though, as it showcases much of the singer’s life, making the movie a two hour and 40 minute highlight reel.
Even with the strong visual identity of the movie, and the mixing of modern music in some places to spice things up, the movie turns into a collection of scenes strung along the typical biopic path that becomes tiring after a while, even when some of those scenes are stellar.
Helping to make the film have stellar moments was the actor portraying the titular character. On top of being able to sing some of the songs, Butler truly humanized the star, especially in the film’s later third. There are scenes showing Elvis’ later shows, where the character is barely holding it together and drenched in sweat because of exhaustion, and Butler sells the hell out of it.
Hanks is a bit of a different story. While his character comes from the Netherlands, it seemed as though Hanks was laying on the accent too thick. It’s overall a strange performance, and one has to imagine Hanks was being a bit tongue-in-cheek with the portrayal, as if to express how much of a joke and a fraud Parker really was.
“Elvis” is not the most narratively rich biopic, even though it does feature most of the singer’s life. Because of this, audiences have a film that’s too long, but doesn’t stick with a viewer.
However, the movie is still lifted by scenes that deal with Elvis’ impact on culture, the lead performance and Luhrmann’s cinematic grandeur. 3.25 out of 5.