If there’s anybody who can bring the appropriate level of spectacle to Elvis Presley’s biopic, it’s Baz Luhrmann and his patented hyperkinetic style. Within minutes of Elvis, you’re overwhelmed by a tsunami of quick-cut edits, whipsaw camera moves and song mash-ups that feel like Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby mixed into one raging speedball.
We open on a key moment as Presley (played by a revelatory Austin Butler) collapses on his way to the Las Vegas International Hotel stage. Hovering over him, chomping a cigar, is Colonel Tom Parker, the singer’s impresario and manager (played with extra relish by Tom Hanks). “The only thing I want to hear is that he will be up on that stage tonight,” barks the Colonel, and so Dr. Nick is brought in with his case of syringes and elixirs.
Elvis reminds us of what it would be like to be trapped inside Baz Luhrmann’s head. Part cinematic acid trip, part over-the-top Parker voiceover (courtesy of frequent screenplay collaborator Craig Pearce), the biopic, running at an epic 2:39, does not shy away from the nitty-gritty of Presley’s rise to fame — the panties thrown on stage, the exaggerated pelvic thrusts that apparently were the scandal of the nation in 1956, the later decline into drugs and self-parody — but does it all in such a hyperrealist manner that you can only strap yourself in and take the ride. And for once, the subject matter matches his style.
Yes, people loved Moulin Rouge! and a new generation dug the hip-hop mash-ups of DiCaprio’s Gatsby turn, but this is the Luhrmann style injected into a true-life figure — and for once, the director seems to get at the beating heart at the center of it all.
For, even if Elvis was a joke to many by the time of his extended Vegas residence (at a time when punk music was pissing on the graves of dinosaur rockers), recent documentaries and reappraisals remind us that the music never left him: we see Elvis conned into doing “six weeks” at the International on Colonel Parker’s promise that The King would then get to do a worldwide tour, including Asia; it never happened. Elvis found himself (to quote the man) “caught in a trap” — playing nightly stage shows for high rollers and blue-haired ladies with backup singers, a horn and string section, and the most outrageous incarnation of the Elvis wardrobe in stage history.
But to see Butler walk his band through the new sound he wants onstage — hands gesticulating like a conductor’s, karate moves at the ready — and watch the vision take shape kind of puts the lie to the theory that Elvis was only phoning it in by then.
Luhrmann walks us through the main highs and low points of the Elvis story, from his deep connection to his mother (and overshadowed father) to his early fears of selling out.
Butler himself apparently sings the early Elvis songs, like That’s All Right, Mama and Blue Moon of Kentucky; the rest is recreated from live performances by The King. But what Butler brings, beyond the thrusting pelvis, is the defiant physicality of the singer’s stage presence. It’s the suggestive yelping and raw moves that defined “cancel culture” before that was even a thing. White America took notice. Many disapproved.
Then there’s the physical transformation: from early, somewhat androgynous Elvis rocking at hayride shows to the white-caped fat Elvis, stretching the fabric of his stage getup and spreading his arms out in a batwing pose.
Luhrmann walks us through the main highs and low points of the Elvis story, from his deep connection to his mother (and overshadowed father) to his early fears of selling out (Parker commanding him to stop with the gyrating and wear a tuxedo) to his two years in the military, stationed in Berlin where he met his future wife Priscilla (a supportive Olivia De Jonge). All to return home and become, not the next James Dean as he had hoped, but a Hollywood joke, singing songs about clambakes and roustabouts even as the ’60s hit full swing.
Then there’s the 1968 “Comeback Special” on TV, where we learn of his desire to avoid the sanitized pitchman that Colonel Parker pressured him to be, allowing more of the Elvis roots to claw their way back through the myth.
There is no doubt some mythmaking going on here. Elvis has often been portrayed as stealing Black people’s music; but Elvis depicts him as a poor but soulful kid, as entranced by soul shack blues shouters as he is by Baptist church raptures. He chooses to live on the “Black” side of town in Mississippi, adopting the zoot-suit style and moves of performers and hipsters, eventually moving his mother and family out to Graceland in Memphis, complete with two pink Cadillacs. Mostly, he’s a polite kid, looking for a father figure, and a song to sing.
And on the other side, fulfilling that daddy role, is Parker, given slithery life by Hanks. His final days, holed up in a Vegas hospital bed, are delivered to the audience in spiteful voiceover: it’s an indictment of our need for an Elvis Presley, for somebody to fill that hole in us. At one point early on, when Presley has sparked both adoration and outrage, Parker has pins made up to sell to fans and haters alike — both “I Love Elvis” and “I Hate Elvis” — because, as he puts it, “What good’s hate if you can’t make money out of it?” Hanks is a riveting sideshow narrator, but it’s all Austin Butler’s show. He propels this biopic with rocket fuel: he has the punch, the reach, and the soul to bring this icon back to life onscreen.