As a wee lad, one of my first music biopics was Luis Valdez’s La Bamba, the story of Ritchie Valens. Although the ending depressed me, and I didn’t know then that it was based on Ritchie Valens’ real-life rise and tragic end, I knew in my heart that it was a biopic gold standard. Now, I have a new music biopic gold standard: Baz Luhrmann’s exciting, equally as tragic Elvis has me all shook up.
Luhrmann’s direction feels more restrained compared to his other works, working to Elvis’ advantage. Yet, it is every bit as colorful, dynamic, and exciting. That restraint comes partly from the framing device Luhrmann and his co-screenwriters, Sam Brommell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner, inject into the story.
Here enters Colonel Tom Parker, played by a heavily made-up Tom Hanks. Parker proclaims he is considered the “villain of this here story.” As we learn, though, he was but one key figure in Elvis’ rise and eventual downfall, and we certainly develop a distaste for Parker. However, Hanks stands up to the role, filling the part of the story’s conscience.
Without that aspect, Austin Butler, who mimics Presley’s moves and mannerisms, right down to the scream-inducing pelvic thrusts, is humble. From his earliest beginnings in Mississippi discovering the power of music and the gospel to his first performance, Butler exudes the performer’s confidence while shocking an unexpected audience.
Butler, who underwent some 90 wardrobe changes throughout the movie, is anything but restrained. The actor portrays the performer with humility and grace as he thrashes about the various stages in his life as officials seek to curb his tendencies. These early moments in Elvis’ career are where Luhrmann’s direction works, allowing the audience to focus on Presley’s arc, his careful rise to fame, his inability to deal with it, and the consequences of his choices.
Along the way, he gets advice from the likes of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and Mahalia Jackson (Cle Morgan). They tell him to follow his heart, perform the type of music, and act the way he wants. Parker faces the political pressures to tame Elvis’ act, but Elvis knows what sells.
The 1968 Christmas Special on NBC is a highlight and turning point for Elvis when he realizes his power as a voice in the face of rising oppression and is probably the one point in the story where Parker and Elvis see eye-to-eye. Hanks leans into his humor as Elvis works his way through his brand of entertainment. As Elvis unfolds, I couldn’t help but think of 1980’s The Blues Brothers as Jake and Elwood try to get the band back together in expression and music. Both stories have good intentions, and though The Blues Brothers is fictional, both movies explore the exploitation of an artist for the benefit of others.
Much like Elvis’ fall from grace, Luhrmann’s direction falls back into his gaudy ways. Colorful imagery and lightning-quick editing by Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond have the film thrusting its hips through the 159-minute runtime. Editing propels the story’s strength and weakness as Elvis descends into his drug-induced residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Even through the haze, Butler holds his own, vibrant and defiant to the bitter end as Parker’s shenanigans are brought to light.
The story never hides behind Parker’s demands on Elvis; denial on Elvis’ part makes Luhrmann’s story an interesting exercise: the music and his gifts were his moral compass, all to be nearly blindly taken advantage of by others.
I didn’t know much about Elvis’ personal life, and I hadn’t seen his movies which were used to clean up his image and protect him, taking advantage of his fame with an already built-in audience. Unlike La Bamba, I knew his music, distinctive look, and style. They will forever be a part of my memory. Butler’s portrayal of Elvis’ glory and more gives life to the performer.
There is, reportedly, a four-hour cut of Elvis. I’d be interested in seeing it because I was so engrossed in the story that I wanted more. Despite the rocky transition to the film’s second half, Butler is widely considered a contender for the Best Actor nod. I’d dare go so far as to say Elvis is worthy of a Best Picture nod; the production values surrounding Butler are second to none.
Elvis lives on the “Edge of Reality,” supported by solid Butler and Hanks performances with an engaging, fascinating story.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Story by Baz Luhrmann and Jeremy Doner
Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromell and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner
Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison, Kodi Smit-McPhee
PG-13, 159 minutes, Warner Bros. Pictures