I felt trepidation before entering Baz Luhrmann’s epic biopic, Elvis. Luhrmann is not known for subtle filmmaking. After the first 10 minutes of a movie that is 20 minutes shy of three hours, I was already feeling bludgeoned into submission by the relentless editing, full-on visuals and deafening soundtrack. Then something happened. A moment in the movie that sent shivers down my spine and made my hair stand up on end. Elvis’s first performance in a pink suit sends the crowd into a frenzy. From that moment on, this became a fascinating visual experience with a performance that will blow you out of the water.
Colonel Tom Parker lay in a Vegas hospital dying. He has spent his life being a hustler and, as he calls himself, The Snowman. More importantly, Parker was the man who made Elvis Presley a star. In his own words, Parker explains how the two met and how he took a humble singer from Memphis, Tennessee, all the way to the top until his untimely death in 1977. It’s a journey of facing prejudice, finding love and ending up feeling trapped and under control by Parker, yet all the while, Elvis was changing the face of music and how we perceive the world.
The story of the rise of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is clouded in mystery and legends, which Luhrmann manages to preserve. It follows the usual routes of a musical biopic. The small beginnings when a child stumbles into a church meeting and discovers his love for the soulful sounds; conquering the world with his offensive wiggles and shakes; escaping jail by enlisting in the army; the pressures on his family, heading on a downward trip of self-destruction. Yet while all of these could be over-familiar, Luhrmann delivers them with style and panache.
Many consider the Australian filmmaker’s approach to movie-making as an attack on the senses. With films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge under his belt, you know that he loves mixing colourful visuals with a jukebox soundtrack, so making a film about Presley would seem an unusual choice. However, with the visual flairs, the use of tricks conveys the passage of time. Some may find it all far too much, but while it could have been a straightforward biopic, it wouldn’t zip through so fast that you forget you are sitting in the cinema for nearly three hours.
The film is littered with memorable moments. The wiggling of his little finger leading to singing Trouble when accused of being associated with the black community. His connections with B.B. King and attending a club on Beale Street to discover Little Richard and taking his music to another level. The fun and colourful montage captures Presley’s Hollywood time. Lurhmann then uses the split-screen techniques in the documentary That’s The Way It Is for his time at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.
Let’s not forget the human drama of a man who seemed imprisoned by a greedy and unscrupulous businessman, Colonel Tom Parker. The relationship between the two men is never looked upon as pure evil but as one of two men who were lost and found each other, leading to decisions that may have left Presley even more lost. In contrast, the Colonel had his own loneliness in his obsession with controlling everything that Elvis did. This is more evident when demanding the singer do a Christmas special. At the same time, Presley had other ideas, namely the now legendary 68 Comeback Special, all captured with brilliant attention to detail by the production designs.
Tom Hanks as Parker, covered in prosthetics and a fat suit, is fine, but you never really get the feeling he has got under the character’s skin; instead, he is giving us a caricature of the man, as played by an acting superstar. Austin Butler, however, is a revelation. As Elvis, there are moments in the film where you forget that this is an actor playing the role. It is breath-taking, capturing the whole gambit of emotions of the man. The movements, the inflexions, and the voice are all here. This isn’t an impression but total submergence of the legend. If there is a sure-fire winner of the best actor award next year, Butler is it. One of the best performances ever captured on film.
Elvis may annoy some, but it may frustrate others. Yet as a non-fan, this was an eye-opener. It’s Luhrmann’s best film since Moulin Rouge, and I may even go as far as to say that this is the best film I have seen this year. A flawed project, maybe, but with this much energy and passion on screen, it’s a fantastic achievement.
5 out of 5
Director: Baz Lurhmann
Starring: Austin Bulter, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJorge, Helen Thompson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr, David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Written by: Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, (also story) Baz Luhrmann and Jeremy Doner
Running Time: 159 mins
Release date: 24th June 2022