Somewhere between Walk Hard, the parody that ended all music biopics, and Rocketman, the best music biopic ever made, exists Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s completely unhinged, nearly three hour long exploration of the life and times of one Elvis Aaron Presley aka The King, aka Uncle Jesse’s favorite rocker.
While there is little explanation as to why Uncle Jesse seemed to prefer late-stage Elvis, befringed and overweight, playing the hits to the tourists of Las Vegas, there is even less explanation as to why Jesse and The Rippers used such nomenclature, when all they ever seemed to play was Do Wah Diddy Diddy and their original hit, Forever, neither of which could ever be accused of “ripping.”
But this is neither here nor there, and I only bring it up because Uncle Jesse (whose canonical actual name is Hermes Katsopolis) would have loved Elvis in all its gaudy glory. Unfortunately, Uncle Jesse was killed in Afghanistan, RIP.
Those who don’t like Baz Luhrmann will likely hate his most visually bombastic film to date, and those who hate Elvis for any of a garden variety of reasons (and there are plenty) will absolutely despise this movie. But for Luhrmann fans like myself, whose only connection to Elvis is that my grandmother was a huge fan, you are in for a treat.
The film opens, unspools, and closes as an extended montage, exploding out of the gate with an insane energy created by a swirling camera and rapid fire editing, set to music both diegetic and score, the latter of which regularly invokes melodies from Presley’s catalogue. We meet Colonel Tom Parker (Tom “Back the Fuck Off” Hanks), an old man with a weird voice and a physique made of prosthetic makeup. To Hanks’ credit, as strange of a choice as his casting is, it actually works. It’s easy to forget that this caricature of a human being is being portrayed by America’s Dad. Parker is a producer/conman who, upon hearing the voice of young Elvis, and subsequently finding out that it was coming from the mouth of a white man, makes it his mission to turn Presley into a star.
Yes, for all the talk of “Elvis stole Black music,” a valid criticism indeed, Elvis does a fantastic job of making it clear that a co-opting Black music did indeed occur. While it’s not framed as Elvis himself being a cynical thief (he’s accurately portrayed as being pretty tight with his musical forbears), it does make it clear how racism was so baked into the culture that it allowed for the meteoric rise of a star who had a sound that white America was typically afraid to embrace on account of who performed it, while the progenitors of the sound were relegated to back rooms and niche markets for no good reason at all. Alas, this is not the focus of Elvis, but it’s an appreciated touch that has been missing from Elvis lore at large for way too long. Perhaps we’ll get biopics for these voices in due time. Here’s hoping…
What follows is a long, remarkably in-depth portrayal of Elvis’ rise and fall which rides on Luhrmann’s talent as a visual artist, and an absolutely stellar titular performance from Austin Butler. While his facial fillers make him kinda confusing to look at, there’s no denying how fully he morphs into the King of Rock and Roll, even though his upper lip is no longer capable of doing anything at all, let alone the famous curl. In scenes where he is tasked with tapping into Elvis as a person, he flawlessly embodies all the concerns and pressures of a well-meaning artist with a passion for his craft. In scenes of musical performance, Butler will make you believe that Elvis is still alive and well, doing his wiggles on the big screen. Yes, his band members refer to his dancing as his “wiggles.”
A sequence during the “Old Elvis vs New Elvis” period, in which every money-man demands the musician clean up his act (no wiggles) is a particular stand out. In it, Elvis refuses his manager’s advice and proceeds to wiggle so much that the authorities are called. It’s an explosive sequence, one of many, and it was at this point that I knew I was caught hook, line, and sinker for the film. If any scene comes close to touching the majesty of Rocketman, it’s this one.
We meet members of Elvis’ band (the TCB in the film’s logo is a reference to the band, named “Taking Care of Business”), members of his family, and of course, his extremely young wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). The material with Priscilla will likely become the source of much pushback, which is perfectly understandable, but to the film’s credit, it uses some dialogue to speak on their age gap without making it the focus of the film. Cuz let’s face it, if any film were to tackle this in a more serious manner, it would, by nature, have to become the center of the whole thing (we’re simply not far enough along in our ability to separate depiction from advocacy to incorporate such heavy material in a film in a way that isn’t pointed — in a lot of ways I’d even say we regressed). The notable point to be made here is how much DeJonge looks and sounds like her character. In the latter stages of the movie, as Elvis enters his final days of depression, drug abuse, and physical decline, it’s Priscilla who keeps the film from fully excusing his actions on account of his celebrity. If Butler’s performance keeps the film explosive, it’s DeJonge who prevents it from running out of gas.
There is a dip in the center of the film, as is typical with high energy material at this length. This isn’t to say that Elvis is slow, not by a long shot, but that it opens with such dizzying intensity that it can’t help but to feel likes it’s struggling to catch its breath at times. It’s a welcome change of pace at points, and a bit comparatively sludgy at others, but when it doesn’t work, it feels more a result of the script than the on-screen energy. What I mean to say is that Elvis is as much the star of the show as is the considerably less interesting Colonel Tom Parker. The slower paced moments are centered around the latter, and despite Hanks’ unfettered ability to command the screen, it’s hard to care that much about the man he plays. His story is certainly an interesting one, but since the man himself proves to be a mystery, there’s not much here outside of the standard “producer takes advantage of his star” tropes.
That said, the real-world story of Elvis is what so many standard biopic tropes are based on, so perhaps it’s less a content issue than it is one of timing.
The strangest and best testament to the earth-shattering performance of Austin Butler and the visual insanity of Baz Luhrmann is the one scene that successfully marries the actor with footage of Elvis himself. As the film comes to a close, we see a portion of the King’s final performance. It begins with Austin Butler’s face digitally placed over the real footage of Elvis behind his piano. It’s not as unsettling as you’d imagine. Slowly but surely, the superimposition fades, and the original face of Elvis is replaced. It’s the type of directorial choice that only Luhrmann is crazy enough to even attempt, let alone pull off, and after nearly three hours in his bombastic visual circus, it plays as smooth as can be.
Audiences will likely be divided over this one, half of whom will be rocked by this particular brand of cinematic revelry, while the other half pops a Dramamine and closes their eyes. But in this day and age, if an Elvis picture is going to be successful, it pretty much has to be bugfuck bananapants, and my god is Elvis bugfuck bananapants (I was told by Film Twitter that “bonkers” is no longer cool to say).
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner
Starring Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Gary Clark Jr.
Rated PG-13, 159 minutes