Bazmark Films and Jackal Group/rated PG-13/159 minutes
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner
Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh and Olivia DeJonge
Cinematography by Mandy Walker, Editing by Matt Villa Jonathan Redmond and Music by Elliott Wheeler
Opening theatrically courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery on June 24
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is an unusually on-point match-up of filmmaker and material. The cradle-to-grave biopic of the unofficial king of rock and roll is a whirlwind of audio/visual wonder. It is a glorified 2.5-hour music video or trailer that miraculously manages to tell a story rooted in character amid its relentless montages and pinball editing. That’s at least partially because the story is in sync with Luhrmann’s prior spectacles, offering a rock opera (or rock kabuki?) that (like Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby) matches the razzle-dazzle with a grand tragedy exposing the rotting cubic zirconium underneath. It’s a classic tale of a man undone by the monster who made him, whereby the king (one with roots, origins and sympathies rooted in Black experience) becomes a metaphorical slave to his duplicitous white “master.”
The film makes zero bones about from where Elvis’s musical stylings and infamous shakes and thrusts came. It offers an ironic portrait of a poor young man raised alongside Black neighbors who became a superstar by being a white man who sang and danced like a Black man. Elvis is also refreshingly blunt about why Elvis’ early years were so controversial, namely that, yes, white adults were appalled that their white children were shaking, rattling and rolling to what was seen as “negro music” in a white man’s personage, a wolf in sheep’s clothing if you will. In a time when our current politically conservative leaders have arbitrarily and almost randomly declared war on drag queens, it’s not so absurd that America’s cultural leaders would look upon a man like Presley with, well, the devil in disguise.
The actual devil in disguise was of course Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in what is easily the most loathsome and least sympathetic performance he has ever given, and I mean that as a compliment), the carnival barker who treated his naïve wunderkind as a sideshow attraction right until the end. Hanks offers a highly characterized take, one that if it’s a little over-the-top is entirely unconcerned about turning off fans or shocking those used to his “real American hero” turns. That the film is a two-hander between Hanks and Austin Butler (terrific and equally transformative as an adult Elvis) makes sense as it also focuses almost entirely on matters of business and entertainment. Elvis’ private life and personal struggles are almost irrelevant, which means, yes, his marriage to Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) is painfully underdeveloped.
Butler offers a star-making turn, from an actor with over 15 years of triple-threat Nickelodeon and Disney Channel experience. He makes such an impression even alongside a scenery-chewing Hanks and amid a montage-heavy narrative. It helps that he’s not doing an explicit impression of Elvis, this isn’t like Brandon Routh being forced to mimic Christopher Reeves for 90% of Superman Returns, as he offers his own portrait of a pioneering artist who wasn’t experienced or intelligent enough to sniff out the fox within his own hen house. That he’s burdened with supporting his entire family (including his… unusually clingy mother) makes it more plausible that he’d heed the guidance (from musical stardom to the army to mostly mediocre Hollywood movies to a would-be comeback in just over a decade) that renders the “peak Elvis” period shockingly brief.
I am an Elvis agnostic, absorbing most of his history and art through academic curiosity and pop culture osmoses. But watching Elvis, I realized that this was another example of a towering artist who peaked within the first few years and whose fans arguably spent the next decades hoping that he would return to the “pure period.” The go-to example for this is always Eddie Murphy, who exploded onto the scene on Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, made a few blockbuster movies (48Hrs, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop) playing the so-called Eddie Murphy star persona and then spent the next 35 years doing The Golden Child, The Nutty Professor and Dreamgirls. Moreover, no Tim Burton fantasy movie will make you feel how you did upon first watching Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.
I won’t pretend to know if everything onscreen is truthful, but I don’t care since A) it’s entertaining and worthwhile even if it’s fiction and B) I’m not using it to cheat on a school assignment. Elvis doesn’t try to rewrite the rules of the musical biopic, and you can see the strain in avoiding falling into Walk Hard territory during the “downfall”-heavy second half. But the story it tells through its unapologetic audio/visual nirvana is a singular one, both in terms of Elvis’ unique cultural impact and how he was essentially the victim of his stage-managed success. It turns what has usually been treated as an artistic triumph into a story of uniquely American tragedy, reminding me less of Bohemian Rhapsody and more of Arthur Hiller’s terrific The Babe. By the end, it’s damn-well Shakespearean.