Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the latest biopic about the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley, can only be described as showbiz personified. Packed with spinning visuals, musical flourishes, and a stunning performance by Austin Butler, the film is a wild and entertaining look at the icon’s life. But, when the house lights come on, and the singer’s trauma and abuse are laid bare, you can’t help but notice how Elvis’s style and script struggle to co-exist.
Elvis tells the story of Elvis Presley (Butler) through the unreliable eyes of the late singer’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The movie chronicles the singer’s early life, career, and death, exploring the toxic relationship and manipulation that existed between the star and his manager. On top of this overview of his life, we see glimpses of his childhood, how Black music made him into a star, and the political time period during segregation and the civil rights movement in America.
It is safe to say that no stone is left unturned duing the film’s two- and half-hour runtime. With the detailed script paired with an overload of Elvis’s musical hits, it is clear that Luhrmann is honouring the fans of the singer first and foremost.
The film gives you what you want, and on paper, should work as a home run in ticking off the typical boxes seen in a biopic. It is fun and carries the myth of the late singer in buckets. However, there is something about Elvis that feels as if it just missed out on achieving its true potential.
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Baz Luhrmann isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. His overly theatrical directorial style can be considered an acquired taste, and his latest movie takes his typical sensibilities to the extreme, so it is understandable why Elvis may be considered a divisive watch. Throughout the film, the overload of spinning camera shots, strange sharp cuts, and carnivalistic overlays can give you whiplash and sometimes can feel akin to watching a confused fever dream.
Now don’t get me wrong; the quick and jerky visuals sometimes work, especially during Elvis’s performances. As the King of Rock wiggles his pelvis, the frantic composition of Luhrmann’s biopic heightens feelings of excitement and spectacle. But, the problem is when the King leaves the stage.
When the film shifts gear to explore Elvis’s personal life, the energetic visuals and editing don’t work with the movie’s tone and at times feels uncomfortably cartoony during moments that are meant to detail some of Elvis’s most poignant real-life problems.
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This issue is exasperated because Austin Butler does such a phenomenal job portraying the famous singer. Butler never crosses the line into caricature or over the top impersonation in his portrayal. Instead, he gives us a fully embodied man struggling with his dreams while being abused mentally and financially by someone he trusted.
With such a strong and grounded performance, the ‘Moulin Rouge on steroids’ fanatical visuals in Luhrmann’s film can stick out like a sore thumb, and in short, you can’t help but feel like something just doesn’t click as you watch the biopic.
Tom Hank’s character is another point that stops Elvis from reaching its full potential. Hank’s portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker is an odd one. While the actor can be commended for his complete transformation, his character lacks any charisma, making his bit as the snake oil salesman who keeps Elvis in the golden cage of Vegas, questionable and, dare I say, almost unbelievable. We never truly see the pull or persuasion of Hank or the deeper relationship between him and Butler’s character besides the promise of monetary gain.
Although this isn’t a problem for the movie’s first act, by its third, you are wondering why Hanks is still there, and left frustrated at his continued influence as, narratively, it almost doesn’t make sense. Lurhaman’s decision to frame the biopic from the perspective of this creepy and wholly unlikeable antagonist who also happened to rob Elvis of his life may seem like an enticing (if not extremely morally grey) concept at first. Still, it strangles the true strength that carries the film – the first-hand look at Elvis’s tragic arc as a trapped talent.
But the strange framing decision and Colonel and Elvis’s lacking relationship aside, the film does try to make up for its central duo by providing heartfelt portrayals of Elvis’s loved ones. Snapshots with his wife Pricilla, and his mother shine as touching moments.
Through these scenes, Luhrmann does a great job at pulling on our heartstrings and capturing the human side of the famous icon. When Butler is on screen, interacting in those moments and embarking on his character’s emotional journey, it is impossible not to enjoy Elvis.
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The atmosphere of his onstage presence is addictive, and his character portrayal as a real man thrust into stardom unprepared is captivating. All of his odd decisions and narrative foe pas aside, Luhrmann knows how to get our blood racing and how to make a film just plain fun.
When Butler sings, the cinematography kicks up gear, feeling reminiscent of the spectacles that we all love from the filmmaker’s past work, such as the grand parties in The Great Gatsby or the choreographed numbers of Moulin Rouge. With this in mind, Elvis was, in my opinion, one of the most conflicting viewing experiences I have had in a long time.
Let’s get one thing straight; you will want to love this film. You will want to be completely swept away, tapping your feet to the classic hits from the King, but unfortunately, Elvis fails to fully take you to the streets of Memphis or brings home the tear-jerking impact it is evidently craving.
There is no doubt in my mind that Elvis is a fine tribute that many fans won’t regret watching, but it just gets in its own way and doesn’t manage to stand as an exceptional one.
Elvis hits theatres on June 24, 2022.
Elvis is heaps of fun, but for you to truly enjoy this flick will depend on whether you are a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s style or not.