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Review: Elvis

June 25, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Baz Luhrmann, the Australian filmmaker who turned the words of William Shakespeare into the most ’90s movies imaginable in his 1996 film Romeo & Juliet and last delivered a glitzy 3D take on The Great Gatsby in 2013, is a director who is known as much for his long gaps between movies as he is for the style that he brings to every new project.

And his latest film, Elvis, carries on in this tradition. Luhrmann’s captivating stylistic impulses make him a natural fit for a figure as outsized and mythologized as Elvis Presley, and he delivers with a splashy, opulent film. This is music biopic as cinematic spectacle, from the kaleidoscopic editing choices to Austin Butler’s incredible performance in the titular role, taking us on a rollercoaster ride.

Butler, in a star-making performance, is key to the film’s success, as he seamlessly portrays Presley at different points in his career, from his early rise to fame to his years in Vegas performing night after night, increasingly reliant on substances. The film uses the parasitic relationship between Presley and his corrupt manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a carnival barker who initially signed him as part of his country act and financially took advantage of him for his own gain, as the main narrative thread.

Hanks’ Parker serves as our narrator; the film opens with him looking back on his life in 1997, as his health is failing and he wanders a around casino with his IV drip playing the slot machines, already discredited by the media. From here, the story jumps around to show Presley’s childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, and his start as a performer influenced by jazz and gospel, borrowing from contemporary Black musicians like Big Momma Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Little Richard (Alton Mason), who couldn’t get regular airplay on the radio.

Parker puts him on the same ticket as country star Hank Snow (David Wenham), but audiences are really coming to see Elvis wiggle his hips in his pink jumpsuit. Luhrmann dramatizes the scandals that Presley caused with his gyrating hips, showing the amusing reactions of girls (and some boys) who gaze upon his crotch in a horny, hypnotized daze. This starts to cause quite a stir with racist lawmakers, who are worried about him corrupting the youth with his Black-influenced dance moves, leading to one of the film’s most rousing sequences as a rejuvenated Elvis taunts his censors with a performance of “Trouble” in front of a rapturous crowd.

The film plays out as a mix of dramatic biopic and jukebox musical, with a key sequence involving the filming of the 1968 NBC Christmas special perfectly blending the two. This stunning midsection serves as one of the film’s defining sequences, showing the cracks in the relationship between Presley and his manager, as well as Presley’s defiance in the face of civil unrest, culminating with Butler’s powerful rendition of “If I Can Dream.”

Luhrmann is also a filmmaker with a keen eye for connecting the past to the present through his musical choices. Like in his previous films with anachronistic uses of songs (such as “When Doves Cry” in Romeo & Juliet and Gatsby’s Jay Z-produced soundtrack), Luhrmann does something similar here with an early moment that sees a young Elvis strutting down Beale Street in Memphis to a “Hound Dog” remix featuring Doja Cat, serving as a musical bridge between past and present.

With Luhrmann at the helm, at times Elvis feels like it was put together by a mad genius, jumping between points in time and employing any number of stylistic choices, ranging from comic book panels to split screens. The film is always visually stimulating to watch, from Mandy Walker’s cinematography, to the period costumes and production design. The flashy editing by Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond ties it all together. It’s a whole lot of movie, designed to overwhelm the senses. But the cumulative effect of it becomes something quite moving.

A montage showing Presley’s acting career is cleverly done in the style of one of his party movies, while also highlighting how his failure to become a serious actor remained one of his biggest regrets. Elvis was supposed to star in the 1976 remake of A Star is Born alongside Barbara Streisand, but never got the chance, with the role ultimately going to Kris Kristofferson. In many ways, Elvis is his version of A Star is Born; it’s a big, sprawling music film that charts the rise and fall of an artist worried about his legacy, ultimately ending in tragedy.

Butler delivers an impressive transformation into the role of Elvis, with his ability to copy the voice and gyrating hips making him a captivating screen presence. But his performance is more than just uncanny imitation; the film’s second half allows the more dramatic scenes to come into sharper focus, including a couple of heartbreaking moments with co-star Olivia DeJonge, who takes on the role of Presley’s wife, Priscilla. For his part, Hanks goes big with the role of the Colonel, and, while the prosthetics and voice take some getting used to over the opening scenes, it becomes a more interesting performance as the film goes along.

This is Elvis as metaphor for America in the 20th century (a theme that was explored in Eugene Jarecki’s excellent 2018 documentary The King); it’s the epic tale of a rising star befallen by someone else’s greed, and Luhrmann approaches the story as if it was Citizen Kane. The film is long at 159 minutes (cut down from a reported four-hour cut), but the running time simply flies by. If you are an Elvis fan (and I am), Elvis delivers basically everything you want, and it’s hard not to get choked up over the final scenes. The result is an entertaining and emotional film that serves as a great tribute to The King.

Elvis is now playing exclusively in theatres.

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