Sometimes when you see a film, you just know that it’s something very, very special. It took about ten minutes for me to become absolutely enamored with “Elvis,” director Baz Luhrmann‘s epic biopic. This flamboyant, dazzling, cinematic spectacle is an unforgettable film about the beloved cultural icon and American music legend.
With a story that spans three decades, the film chronicles the life of legendary entertainer Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), from his early days as a young boy attending tent revivals in Mississippi to his final days as an overworked and exhausted performer in Las Vegas. Presley’s manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), serves as the narrator, assuring the audience early on that he’s not “the villain of this here story.” Of course, that’s left up to you to decide, but anyone who knows the smallest tidbit of the history between the two men will remember that Parker was a degenerate gambler who used, abused, and fleeced Elvis for years, and that their complicated relationship caused a great deal of turmoil.
This film is a massive undertaking, as 42 years of a celebrity’s life is told in less than 3 hours. Major parts of Presley’s story are abbreviated out of necessity (Elvis’ film career and his popular Aloha From Hawaii concert are only briefly mentioned, for example), but the events Luhrmann chooses to focus on really hit home with his narrative. There’s a great deal of content about his ’68 comeback special, and a large chunk of the film is devoted to the time Elvis spent in Las Vegas. It makes sense that this story would give more time to his later years, because not only does the relationship with Parker play a large role, that’s the Elvis with whom so many are familiar.
The film is well cast, but the big elephant in the room is the dreadful performance by Hanks. Wearing a fat suit, prosthetic nose, and adopting an atrocious accent that is the equivalent of mixing the voice of Colonel Sanders with nails on a chalkboard, the actor is so distracting that he ruins almost every scene he’s in. He creates one of the most annoying, if not one of the worst, characters ever put on screen. It’s difficult to listen to him and a struggle to watch. Granted, Parker isn’t an easy person to love, but Hanks manages to make him even worse. His performance is a bad caricature, but Butler more than makes up for it. He becomes Elvis so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget he isn’t the real thing. He’s appealing, talented, and this film should launch his acting career well beyond the stratosphere.
Luhrmann is a director that’s an acquired taste for many, as his energetic, frantic cinematic language can be off-putting. I think he’s the ideal choice for this project, and his signature style is electrifying. The first half of the film is rapidly paced, his visual storytelling operating at a breakneck speed. It’s exhausting, but in a good way. The director captures the thrilling feeling that folks must’ve felt the first time they heard Elvis sing or saw him perform (one of the most memorable scenes are when women see him wiggle on stage: some criticized the “lewd gyrations,” but those ladies were reduced to screaming because they wanted more). If you take away all the spectacle, this would feel like just another standard biopic. But Luhrmann’s artistry and natural knack for creative storytelling elevates the material.
The pace calms down dramatically in the second half as Luhrmann tells the story of Elvis’ sad later years, with all the drugs, the meltdowns, the exhaustion, and his family problems. It’s like two different movies in one, but the slower tempo is the perfect fit for Presley’s life and career trajectory, especially when diving into the ugly side of show business.
Music fans will delight in the soundtrack, which is packed with creative arrangements of tried and true Elvis songs. The film utilizes music styles like rap and hip-hop to bring a modernization to the story and it works: even for Presley purists. If you aren’t keen on changing the classics, never fear: there are plenty of straight-up musical numbers that showcase the hits as they were written, too.
“Elvis” features grandiose visual storytelling that captures the awe and exhilaration that’s still felt from Presley’s mark he left on the world. This is one thrilling movie for Elvis fans.