At first glance, Elvis — the much-anticipated biopic of one Elvis Presley — is an ultra-ambitious kaleidoscope of a film that never quite finds its focus. There are moments in which I thought to myself, “Ugh, this is really just a series of flashy images for people with micro-short attention spans.” And guess what? Like the flawed King of Rock and Roll himself, you can’t help falling in love with it. Rush in, you fools.
Though former Disney star Austin Butler shines in the titular role (and I’ll get to him in a second) and Tom Hanks is the requisite Hollywood name to draw in audiences, I’m stating it nice and high that the real star of the show is Baz Luhrmann. The director Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby specializes in frenetic razzle dazzle, often to wildly mixed results. It turns out that his unconventional touch is the exact way to present a birth-to-Earth look at a one-of-a-kind true American icon.
As a shy Mississippi-born teen, Presley swivels his hips into the cultural stratosphere in the 1950s by looking and sounding unlike any other singer on the market. The truth is, he was emulating the style of Black rhythm and blues artists such as Little Richard and B.B. King with a pretty face to match. A would-be Dutch-accented manager and literal carnival barker named “Colonel” Tom Parker gets wind of this new sensation and promptly signs him, correctly rationalizing that this Southern gentleman is his ultimate ticket to ride. He’s right: When Elvis starts crooning on stage and contorting his body, the girls start to shriek. (I’m describing this first act in linear fashion, just to make it easier on us all; Luhrmann takes the record needle and jumps around between the 70s, 40s and 30s without skipping a beat.) Later, Elvis marries a young military brat named Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge in an underwritten part) and becomes the first chart-topper of his generation to make a historic Las Vegas concert run. But the unforgiving 70s were rough on the former teen idol, and Elvis succumbs to various excesses and dies in 1977 at age 42.
The X-factor is Parker, the manager who wasn’t really a colonel, possibly wasn’t Dutch and definitely took the slippery slope approach when dealing with his prized client. Perpetually by his side and in control of his every move, Parker narrates Elvis’ story from his perspective. Even as Presley outgrows the old man and becomes more cognizant at his shady business dealings, he never allows himself to break free. Why? Parker, which is to say the several screenwriters behind the scenes, attempt to make the case to Presley (and the audience) that the two are symbiotic. That’s why they need each other, you see. Sorry, don’t buy it. Parker is no doubt a fascinating figure but he remains a cipher. And after 159 minutes, I’m still not convinced why the two needed each other to succeed. I’ll go even further and say that the novelty casting of the usually inimitable Hanks doesn’t help matters. He’s covered in old-age prosthetics and yet still can’t quite disappear in the tricky role. It’s a distraction. And come early 2023, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie.
Instead, Elvis works best when Luhrmann lets his subject cut loose on stage. Butler, whom I’m told is best known for once being the longtime love of fellow Disney star Vanessa Hudgens, is a revelation. Considering that Presley has been imitated by everyone from Kurt Russell to Nicolas Cage to a tiny Bruno Mars (proof!), the fact that Butler still manages to put his own spin on the man and capture his essence is practically a miracle. (FYI, he does his own vocals in the first half; he and Presley’s voices are meshed together for the latter-era.) Butler is especially effective during the stunning reenactment of Presley’s famed 1968 TV comeback special. And when the artist becomes warily introspective in his waning years, the performance is flat-out heartbreaking. If only he had decided to co-star with Barbra Streisand in that A Star Is Born remake, sigh.
In case it’s not clear by now, this is not a visual supplement to an Elvis Presley biography. Luhrmann plays fast and loose with many facts and omits key passages from his life. The infamous encounter with then-President Richard Nixon is in the unedited version, while Butler’s physical resemblance to Presley in the 1970s is hardly a match. But none of the above detracts from a bonafide entertainment spectacle that finishes on the perfect poignant note. When he leaves the building, we’re left wanting just a little more.