Just call Baz Luhrmann’s latest movie, Elvis 101. Running almost 3 hours, this biopic on Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) has over two decades of music, history, drama, and hip swaying to cover. Told from the perspective of Presley’s crooked manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), “Elvis” takes us through the life and career of one of the most iconic men in music history. Shining in places, shimmying in others, and anchored by a star-making performance from Austin Butler, Elvis fans should be pleased with this satisfying tribute to The King.
Releasing his first film since 2013’s “The Great Gatsby,” Luhrmann is one of those directors people seem to really love or really hate. His movies are fast-paced in a way that some may find jarring and visually experimental, but watching this movie, you realize so was Elvis. Plus, with the dazzling cinematography and set designs, I’ll guarantee you’re never bored while watching a Luhrmann film, and for those worried that you won’t like the style, compared to some of the director’s past work, “Elvis” is somewhat toned down.
Has anyone been impersonated more than Elvis? Thankfully Butler’s performance feels authentic, and he does a wonderful job. As younger Elvis, Butler’s singing voice is used, but as the film gets later into the Vegas years, Butler’s voice is mixed with Elvis’s real vocals, but the fact that Butler does much of his own singing is a plus. I’ve never understood how actors get Oscars for playing famous musicians when they lip-synch. Isn’t that a big part of the performance?
A big focus of the movie is Presley and Parker’s working relationship. Parker is a money-grubbing, fame-hounding phony looking for his next cash cow, and Presley is naive enough to fall into his trap. Early in the film, Parker attends a young Elvis performance, where Presley dons a pink suit and endures homophobic slurs from male audience members right before opening his mouth to sing- thrusting his hips and making every girl in the crowd go crazy. Parker recognizes Presley’s potential and sets out to make him a star-no matter what it takes. I know Tom Hank is America’s sweetheart, but his portrayal of Elvis’s backstabbing manager isn’t a good fit. Parker was a villain in Presley’s life, but with heavy prosthetics and an accent that doesn’t sound like Parker at all, Hanks plays him like a carnival cartoon character, not a real person.
While Elvis is an artist in his own right, the movie recognizes that he got a lot of his sound and style from black artists, who unfortunately were not allowed the same success opportunities as Presley. Despite the backlash he received for his appreciation of black music, Elvis is shown defying racist criticism, getting inspiration, and even borrowing lyrics from artists like Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
Having the movie be told from the perspective of Tom Parker is an interesting choice. Still, from a narrative perspective, it allows for an unreliable narrator and gives the film an excuse to gloss over certain events in Presley’s life and focus on things that interested Parker. Midway through the movie, we quickly see highlghts of Elvis’s movie career, his marriage, and his son’s birth. I feel like his crazy movie career or his time in Vegas could have been a movie itself.
With Presley being one of the most recognized figures in music history, I’m not surprised that some of his story feels a tad sanitized, a common trap for many PG-13 biopics. The movie ignores that Priscilla was 14 and Elvis 24 when the couple met and seems to barely dip its toes in some of the darker sides of fame and his drug use. Whenever I see a biopic that covers such a long life span, I can’t help wishing it was multiple-episode miniseries, but I suppose this is a movie and not a documentary.
From his early days of wearing a pink suit at a small talent show to his final heartbreaking performance of Unchained Melody in Vegas, “Elvis” tells the familiar story of one’s rise and fall through drugs, sex, and corruption. While the movie is a fun tribute to Elvis and highlights what made him so iconic, it doesn’t necessarily say anything new about him.
(Stream Movie on HBO Max)