Despite missteps, Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann encapsulates the span of Elvis Presley’s career with great care and affection for his subject in Elvis. The film starts as a colorful romp à la Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge and slows to mirror the melancholy descent of a true American legend.
The film starts with Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” and concludes with the Las Vegas residency during which his career, and life, ended. Luhrmann’s adept flashbacks illustrate Presley’s early life in poverty, Black neighborhoods, and the church. He compresses the gospel and blues influences into one scene, hypothesizing origins of how the music moved Presley physically and spiritually. Presley’s family life includes his uncomfortably close relationship with his mother and his disturbing Teen-September romance with Priscilla. Luhrmann takes his time with the older Elvis, allowing the story to give weight to the obstacles, hard-won comeback, and downward spiral of his final years.
Luhrmann loves a circus and that’s how he presents the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley. It’s an apt metaphor and Luhrmann runs with it, using bright lights, dizzy aerial shots, and an actual circus to bring to life the “The King of Rock and Roll.” The breakneck pace couldn’t last forever in life, and the movie’s second half mirrors reality with a slower momentum and a sad loss of the visual carnival that Luhrmann had created using the settings, costumes, and characters as “postcards” to indicate place and time. I think the Las Vegas residency scenes were a missed opportunity to use showgirls, casinos, and the neon Strip to maintain the visual storytelling, but if Luhrmann’s purpose was to go dark in contrast to the bright beginnings, he could have used grittier, darker imagery to match the King’s inevitable fall.
Austin Butler eats the camera as Presley and swallows the film. No imitation, Butler immerses himself in the persona Elvis presented to the world; his passion for performance; his grief over two major losses – mother and wife/child; and anger at Parker’s control of his business. Butler’s vocal work and physicality are unmatched in other portrayals of the King. Butler’s research and commitment shine through every look, every shake, and every word he speaks. Despite Presley’s incredible looks and knee-rattling voice, I hadn’t fallen prey to the Presley charisma until the cinematography in this film – the cameras get close, then closer to what historical footage avoids. More than a sex bomb, Butler accesses vulnerability, tenacity, and resignation that creates a moving portrait of a young man catapulted to greatness before he’s even left home for the first time.
The greatest flaws in the film lie in the casting, characterization, and use of “Colonel” Tom Parker. Portrayed by Tom Hanks, he’s an unabashed “snowman” who cons Presley and his family without remorse or much effort. Hanks portrays Parker with an indiscernible accent that’s supposed to move between Dutch and American Southern, as Parker posed as a West Virginian. Hanks would have been more effective in the role had they stuck with Southern. If Luhrmann wanted to sprinkle in the Dutch, they should have cast someone who could sell the accent.
It’s refreshing that Luhrmann represents the rarely told Parker-Presley relationship, but Parker’s narration doesn’t work as a framing device. Because the film moves between Parker and Presley’s points-of-view, the choice of narrator makes little sense. Parker admits immediately that he is a conman and denies responsibility for Presley’s descent. Educated viewers know better, and unreliable narrators should not know they’re unreliable. Parker is a proud villain – he’s reptilian from start to finish, so the “unmasking” scenes where Presley fires Parker and Parker hands him the unpayable invoice feel powerless.
Another weakness is casting Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley. DeJonge bears little resemblance to Priscilla – a distinctive beauty – and lacked sizzle with Butler, who had more chemistry with the piano. Elvis also artfully dodges the sexual predation of a 24-year-old celebrity grooming a 14-year-old girl for marriage. Parker describes Priscilla as “a teenager” but skates past Presley’s underage shenanigans to the marriage and baby, possibly to emphasize the “legitimacy” of their relationship. The script likewise avoids the extent of Elvis’ extramarital affairs, implicating only his drug use for their breakup.
Luhrmann includes some of Presley’s drug abuse, but not early nor often enough. Presley, like Judy Garland and so many others, was a victim of his era and the entertainment industry. The army fed him speed for top performance, and Parker kept a doctor on call for a buffet of uppers and downers to keep him functional for the stage. Real-life Presley was anti-recreational drugs, but prescribed “medications” legitimized substance use for him. The film shows it forced upon him before performances, which rings true, but a scene or two showing Presley’s increasing dependency and personal choice to use them in his private life would have added weight to his final moments on the screen – especially with Priscilla. But biopics are meant to entertain and decisions must be made whether the subject or the truth is higher priority.
Elvis transcends its flaws because of Butler’s transformation and the music. The soundtrack is masterful, combining live performances by Butler as young Elvis, mash-ups of rap with EDM Presley mixes, and a kickass premiere performance by Shonka Dukureh as Beale Street great Big Mama Thornton. Sadly, it was Dukureh’s final role, as she died just after the movie wrapped at the age of 44. Her voice shook the seats and stole her every scene.
There’s no lack of the Black influence on Presley’s music and the white privilege he possessed. Parker sought Black sound with a white face. Presley admired Little Richard and hobnobbed with B.B. King. But King lays it out – if Little Richard were white, he would have made as much money as Elvis. Historically, Elvis supported Civil Rights and Black musicians. Luhrmann highlights Presley’s emotional response to both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations. He writes and performs a protest song for his “68 Comeback Special” – a set piece for the film and a triumph in real life, as Presley pushed against Parker’s pressure to sing “the music he loved” and be the true King he was.
One review I read argues Luhrmann was the wrong storyteller for this tale, but I disagree. Luhrmann works best with operatic highs and lows and Presley’s life and career were nothing less. His visual mastery combined with Butler’s tender portrayal left me with Elvis on my mind, seeking more of the King’s humanity anywhere I can find it.
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomsen, and Richard Roxburgh
Available to digitally rent or buy on Amazon and other platforms
Available to stream on HBO Max