It’s hard to believe, but Baz Luhrmann’s new film, Elvis, on superstar Elvis Presley is the first theatrically released biopic on “The King of Rock & Roll.”
There have been a handful of TV features — most notably John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) starring Kurt Russell and CBS’ two-part mini-series Elvis (2005) with Jonathan Rhys Meyers — but never one actually experienced on the big screen until now.
Luhrmann’s interpretation of the world’s greatest rock star comes at us like James Mangold’s Walk the Line (2005) on acid and steroids, with rapid, erratic editing transitions that feel reminiscent of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). We get all the usual takes in movies on music legends, such as the childhood tragedies, the rise to stardom out of nowhere, the excess, pressure and manipulation that comes with fame, and the self-destruction.
We’re given Elvis Presley portrayed by Austin Butler, and his career-long Svengali manager “Colonel” Tom Parker is played by Tom Hanks. Olivia DeJonge is Elvis’ wife Priscilla, and Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh appear as the star’s parents.
The highs of Elvis are mostly the man’s music itself and Butler’s performance. It takes a lot of courage to play someone as iconic as Elvis Presley, especially following an actor like Russell. But Butler takes the task seriously and doesn’t come off too campy or goofy. His interpretation feels natural and not distracting.
We’re also reminded, even with cinematic reenactments, that Elvis’ music is best enjoyed in a big, vibrant theater.
What is campy are Luhrmann’s direction and Hanks’ acting. Luhrmann is the filmmaker who gave us extravagant hits like Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo+Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), so making an Elvis Presley biopic doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary for him. While his flashy, flamboyant style works for Elvis’ aesthetic, it’s also a borderline eyesore at times, with a script that doesn’t go beyond the surface.
Like a lot of biopics, Presley’s life is pretty sugarcoated regarding his love life, substance abuse and association with black musicians. Priscilla is portrayed as the love of his life, yet they separate and divorce because of infidelity. We see Elvis inspired by gospel and R&B music, yet no proper development on how he went from fan to crafting his own image and sound.
Elvis mentions more than once how he would love to be in a classic film, yet we quickly pass by his movie career and don’t even get acknowledgement of Richard Thorpe’s Jailhouse Rock (1957) or George Sidney’s Viva Las Vegas (1964).
Hanks chose to give Parker a thick Dutch accent in Elvis, despite the fact the real man actually disguised his voice with a softened American-like dialect in public. This was so the actor could completely escape into character as an attempt for the audience to not just see ‘Tom Hanks’ on screen.
Unfortunately, this tactic works against him, as do the make-up and prosthetics to give him Parker’s heavier build. The choice of having Parker as the narrator of Elvis could have been interesting, but instead is inconsistent with focusing too much on him at times, especially as he’s being portrayed as a cartoony villain.
At 160 minutes, Elvis is both too long in pacing and too short for the full tale. In a way, watching Luhrmann’s new film suggests TV is the best medium for The King’s life, since there are just so many periods and moments to cover.
I’ve seen biopics that are a lot worse. But Elvis still feels like a missed opportunity to really dig into the rock star’s legacy.