A film review by Craig J. Koban July 6, 2022

Rank: #12

ELVIS jjj
 

2022, PG-13, 159 mins.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley  /  Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker  /  Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley  /  Dacre Montgomery as Steve Binder  /  Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King  /  Richard Roxburgh as Vernon Presley  /  Helen Thomson as Gladys Presley  /  Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe  /  David Wenham as Hank Snow  /  Luke Bracey as Jerry Schilling  /  Alex Radu as George Klein  /  Alton Mason as Little Richard  /  Xavier Samuel as Scotty Moore  /  Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jimmie Rodgers Snow  /  Natasha Bassett as Dixie Locke  /  Leon Ford as Tom Diskin

Directed by Baz Luhrmann  /  Written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner

"It was the greatest carnival attraction I've ever seen..." 

So says Colonel Tom Parker (as played by Tom Hanks, unrecognizably caked under pounds of makeup) upon coming across what would become his financial meal ticket in the future King of Rock n' Roll in director Baz Luhrmann's ELVIS.   

What could a film about one of the most significant cultural, historical, and musical figures of the 20th Century tell audiences at this point what so many other previous films, documentaries, and TV specials haven't already?  Moreover, what could the MOULIN ROGUE helmer do to make this music biopic feel fresh and revitalized in an already (especially recently) heavily packed genre?  

Those are some of the many questions that rang through my head going into ELVIS, and upon coming out of my screening I was fairly sure that this is a pretty conventionally scripted music biopic, but it has a compelling focal point of interest (more on that in a bit) as well as Luhrmann's go-for-absolute-broke stylistic bravado that mirrors and compliments the same type of animalistic on-stage magnetism that Presley clearly had.  That, and ELVIS is a showcase real for star Austin Butler's staggeringly immersive and thoroughly textured performance as the titular figure.  Luhrmann's maximalist aesthetic tendencies might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it sure seems like a perfect match for this subject matter: ELVIS is an audacious and grandiose assault on the senses...and to paraphrase Parker's words, it's a pretty darn epic attraction on most levels. 

Luhrmann has multiple goals here: Obviously, ELVIS isn't a completionist's take on his life and times (this isn't a birth to death biopic), but rather wisely hones in on that precise moment in history when Parker fist locked eyes on the mega superstar-to-be and had - to his credit - the eyes for a once-in-a-generation talent (and the money that would come with it).  From that point, we gain insights into what would become an extremely controversial and strained business and personal relationship between the pair and how that was shaped - for better and worse - over the course of multiple decades until the King's tragically young death at 42 in 1977.  Luhrmann's screenplay (co-written by Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner) isn't simply a greatest hits package of the musician, even though their film gets a bit bogged down in genre troupes in the latter sections.  No, ELVIS is more of a mood and style piece first and foremost than a conventional dramatization of its subject, and one that seems more inclined to capture the seismic impact that this man had on the world.  Most crucial to this overall approach is that - as alluded to earlier - Luhrmann makes a rather gutsy (and potentially polarizing) choice to frame the entire narrative from the perspective of Parker himself looking back on his time with his client, which gives ELVIS a compelling flavor not seen in many music biopics, especially as far as unreliable (and many would say unscrupulous) narrators go.    

ELVIS opens in a highly unpredictable fashion in 1997, as we're introduced to Hanks' Parker just as he's about to die.  On his journey to the grave he speaks directly to the audience and finds himself overcome with a whirlwind of memories of his time with Elvis (Butler).  The film then whisks us all the way back to the 40s and 50s, and the former time period is an intriguing one for showing Elvis as a poverty-stricken child that finds salvation in (a) comic books (he loved SHAZAM and desired to reach the Rock of Eternity, a metaphor for musical success); (b) his passion for God; and (c) his equal love of Gospel and R&B music, especially - later on - the African American artists that dominated Memphis' Beale Street.  At this point we also get into Parker's background, which is - as emphasized through the story - shady, to say the least, on multiple levels.  The most defining aspect of Parker pre-Elvis discovery is that he was a circus carnival hustler that was always looking for the next "big thing" and cash cow.  He thought he was P.T. Barnum incarnate, but here he comes off more as a desperate used car salesman that would use any methods to make a buck.  When he does see Elvis on stage for the first time he's not so much enamored with his music as he is the limitless possibilities of making money off of the musical gifts that he possess.  Still, even Parker had to acknowledge what this unknown kid brought to the table.  "In that moment," he explains to the audience, "I saw a skinny kid transform into a super hero." 

 

 

As history has shown, Elvis' success was meteoric and prompt, and Parker - in pure Svengali-like form - entrances the young singer in with the prospects of unlimited earning potential from his name, image, and music.  And Parker knew that money would not just be generated from Elvis' music, but from a cavalcade of endless merchandise and a hopeful movie career as well (to be fair, Parker at least deserves some kudos for thinking bigger with Elvis than perhaps even Elvis thought).  And their early business partnership paid off handsomely, allowing the once dirt-poor kid from Tupelo, Mississippi to attain wealth and celebrity beyond what he thought was possible.  To the wide-eye twentysomething, it was a dream come true, but to Parker his client was a means to an end to constantly find ways to give people the greatest carnival act ever...and to do so every night on an indefinite basis (and regardless of the negative effect it would have on the star's well being).  Elvis tried to remain grounded and humble during this time, married Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and kept many family members and friends by his side through thick and thin.  But cracks begin to form between him and Parker, which builds towards deeply rooted financial tensions; Parker had a vise-like grip on claming fifty per cent of Elvis' earnings during the entirety of his career...and he always demanded his cut.  But the 70s their partnership grew painfully strained, which - on top of burn-out and an addiction to drugs - culminated with the King's death in 1977.   

I haven't even really scratched the surface of what ELVIS historically covers, but I will say that having the film narrated by Parker himself and providing an audio commentary, of sorts, about his client's career really helps override the repetitive creative staleness that usually punctuates this genre.  Beyond the notion of Hanks playing an ultra rare villainous role (seriously, look at his resume...not many there), ELVIS manages to thankless avoid the pratfalls of so many past movies and TV projects in terms of exploring this man's life and times.  It's a bold and calculating move (and one that might alienate many an Elvis diehard), but it serves the purpose of keeping viewers off-balance and alert.  This also rightfully frames his relationship with Elvis right from the get-go: When Parker first met him he was plagued with stage fright and - backstage, at least - was insecure with with his abilities to win over a crowd.  But just like the super hero comics he gorged on as a kid, Elvis found the source of his pelvis thrusting might and musical powers and unleashed them on an unsuspecting world, and that's when Parker knew he had to have him.  He eventually become a vile puppet master in Elvis career, using his skills as a slick conman to unleash Elvis everywhere while taking his big, fat cut.  By the time Parker died he was a reclusive and sickly compulsive gambler that was torn apart by history and the media for treating Elvis like a sideshow attraction and pilfering way too much money from him over multiple decades.  Parker falsely reassures audiences via his voiceover that he'll set the record straight, although he doesn't do a thoroughly convincing job by the time the end credits roll by.  Hanks is scarily mesmerizing here, and once you get past the obvious body and facial appliances smeared all over him the actor really does disappear into the role and becomes hypnotically convincing as a smooth talking crook. 

The first sections of ELVIS are among the film's finest, especially for the way that Luhrmann and company tap into the obsessive frenzy that fans had over him in the early stages of his career.  The psychological effect he had on women (and in one sly shot, some men) with his then unheard of eroticized gyrating on stage was massive.  His heartthrob sexual tenacity cannot be understated here, and during those formative years you can see the musician fine tuning it in spite of moral leaders of the era condemning him.  My favourite sections of ELVIS are actually midway through and explore his landmark 1968 "Comeback Special" for TV, which Parker dreams of being a wholesome Christmas themed program for all ages watching.  Unfortunately for him, Elvis became an increasingly politicized celebrity that was deeply affected by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Rev Martin Luther King.  All Parker wants is his holiday sweater adorned singer to please the crowd in the least stigmatizing way possible, but when Elvis appears in studio all decked out in black leather and transforms himself back to the "Elvis the Pelvis" of old it angers his manager to no end ("He's not wearing the sweater!!!").  From that vantage point,  Parker and Elvis' partnership would never be the same and go into freefall mode in the next decade to come. 

And with a circus ringmaster-like intensity, Luhrmann bathes ELVIS with an unending propulsive energy that gives viewers a roller coaster styled ride that evokes the dizzying highs and stomach churning lows of the star's career, making a majority of the film so compulsively watchable as a grand jukebox opera (at over two and a half hours, ELVIS never once feels its length).  If you're looking for a quaint and restrained Elvis biopic, then this simply won't be for you, but that's precisely why it spoke to me so much.  Elvis was clearly larger than life, and a big screen treatment of that requires an equally bold level of showmanship and theatricality.  On those levels, Luhrmann seems like the perfect frontman to unleash this version of Elvis to the silver screen, and he peppers his film - even during the quieter moments - with a visually dazzling rhythm and flurry that puts most other music biopics to shame.  It could be argued that the filmmaker's excesses overwhelm the film and overshadow the subject matter (some watching will undoubtedly find it exhausting to endure in parts), but I found that the impeccable and bombastic craftsmanship contained within did a bravura job of relaying Elvis' hip-swinging stage presence and larger impact on the medium.   

Thankfully, Luhrmann and his writers don't sidestep a crucial aspect of Elvis' career: his lifelong appreciation of black musicians and his cozy relationship with many of them.  There has been ample historical scrutiny of Elvis over the years for his appropriation of black music (one of the things that attracted Parker to him in the first place was that he was white, but singing black music, which made him more marketable, in his mind).  His desire to fuse Gospel and Blues into his act is undeniable, but it also caused him to be thrust into the crosshairs of Southern racists who believed that his usage of black-themed music and his overt sexuality on stage would serve as a demonizing influence on the youth of the times.  There's a telling moment in the film when B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bluntly informs Elvis during one chance hangout session that "too many people are making too much money" to just causally throw him in jail.  That's significant in terms of emphasizing that Elvis had a far cozier rise to the top than many of his fellow black musician friends had, and to the film's credit it doesn't overtly overlook that fact.  And Elvis' self-professed love of black music made him a large target for white Christian conservatives, like Hank Snow (David Wenham), who doesn't take too kindly to Elvis' musical trappings and effect on women in the audience (Luhrmann creates a superb juxtaposition between Snow's stiff collared and safe stage presence with that of the hyperdrive soaring Elvis to hammer home the point).  The most arresting scene in the entire film is a wild and rambunctious concert in the heart of the Bible belt, during which time southern authorities warn Elvis to play it safe.  He doesn't, and when he belts out the first lyrics of "Trouble" he knows he's in for it.  Elvis may have used black music, but he put himself in harm's way for it. 

When you watch Butler in moments like this - and so many countless others -  you realize that he goes well beyond mere mimicry or a lazy impersonation of Elvis here (which could easily have been the pratfall of a lesser actor).  Butler is not a precise physical dead ringer for Elvis, but he more than makes up for that in terms of fully encapsulating the singer's full blooded tenacity and riveting level of charisma.  He's definitely a vocal maestro here as well (he did much of his own singing combined with tracks of the real Elvis sliced in, and the end results are always utterly convincing), but the key to his overall performance prowess is in how he effortlessly captures both Elvis' boyish shyness and his rapturously smoldering stage might in equal dosages.  Elvis has been impersonated so many incalculable times by comedians, actors, and Vegas performers for the past 45 years that you truly have to appreciate the daunting challenge of a relatively unknown like Butler taking this role's reigns and somehow making it his own.  It's one of the most lived-in, layered,  and authentic performances of a famous musician I've seen, and Butler seems unquestionably Oscar nomination bound.   

Luhrmann does make a few mistakes here and there in ELVIS, like the fact that his film career is a tad glossed over, not to mention that his growing political awareness in the turbulent 60s is rushed a bit too much for my tastes (granted, it does segue into that sensational recreation of the TV Comeback Special).  This, in turn, builds to easily the least enthralling aspects of ELVIS in the form of his troubling Las Vegas centered touring years in the 70s, which essentially happened so that Parker could selfishly pay off his gambling debts.  It's during the final third of the film that it gets swallowed up in obligatory music biopic story machinations (we see the star freefall into drugs, alcohol, backstage confrontations with Parker and Priscilla, and the musician's physical and mental health drastically deteriorating).  This is part of public record about Elvis' life, yes, but it's dramatically lacking in comparison to the build up towards it (and speaking of Priscilla, the film conveniently overlooks the unsavory aspect of Elvis meeting her for the first time in Germany when she was just 14).  I also could have done without Luhrmann littering the soundtrack with modern musical stars covering Elvis's iconic songs (it's more distracting than hip and cool).  The film concludes with archival footage Elvis (unhealthily bloated, sickly, fairly immobile and just before his death) performing "Unchained Melody" in concert with the breathtaking range of an opera tenor.  This is what the film needs, not lame remixes of his work by others. 

Most of those are relatively minor faults, because Luhrmann's ELVIS is, all in all, a wickedly entertaining biopic that commendably takes calculated changes that handsomely pay off.  It's big, sprawling, splashy, and more than a bit gaudy, but explosively so while exploring the dense mythology behind the best selling (still!) solo act in the history of music.  More importantly, ELVIS also acknowledges the central tragedy of its rags to riches tale and how his business dealings with Parker conspired against him (among many other unhealthy things) and essentially contributed to his downfall and death.  Luhrmann's film is both beautifully uplifting and darkly unsettling in equal dosages, but when all is said and done he finds the vulnerable humanity in the man who would forever become the king.

  H O M E