By Scott Cole
ELVIS – * * * (3 stars out of 5)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh,
Film is a director’s medium above all else, and it’s difficult to think of any filmmaker who understands that more than Baz Luhrmann. It doesn’t matter if he’s working with original material (Strictly Ballroom) or if he’s adapting the classics (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby), the bombastic style always comes first. When working with real life stories of historical record, most directors would likely shy away from expected personal tendencies and maybe not floor the gas pedal. But for better or worse, Australian showman Luhrmann just can’t help himself. His new biopic Elvis about the rise and fall of Elvis Presley, The King of Rock and Roll, is an aggressively showy film that races through events in Presley’s life at breakneck speed but manages to work well when it allows itself to come up for air every once in a while.
It is impossible to begin any review about the film without first acknowledging what is easily the best thing about it: the performance of Austin Butler as Elvis. Butler does a tremendous job of embodying The King at every turn. He is tender and heartbreaking in the smaller, quieter, sadder scenes. And conversely he excels incredibly well at every point in Elvis’ life showing us his dynamic on-stage personality. It is truly a star-making performance that I cannot praise enough; at this point it is easily the best performance so far in 2022.
The story of Elvis’ life is told through the eyes of his controversial manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. In contrast to Butler, who totally disappears into the role of Elvis, Hanks’ portrayal of Parker is a heavy-handed cartoon and his over-the-top performance combined with the pounds of heavy makeup proved to be a lot of work that ultimately did nothing to convince me I was looking at a real person. What is worse is that since the film is told through his point of view, we have his incessant and distracting narration at every turn leading us through the events. It is baffling to me that this is the same actor who did such a good job at convincing us he was Mr. Rogers by simply inhabiting his humanity and not relying on mimicry. Here everything is overdone, from the body language to the Dutch accent, although it is unintentionally hilarious when the music turns dark and he hear him point to Elvis’ new problem “DEM PILLS!” referring to Elvis’ burgeoning drug addiction.
In the early stages of the film, Luhrmann really throws a lot of his typical visual style and flair at the audience. It is a risky way to start the film, and it flirts with becoming overkill or even downright obnoxious. However, once the movie settles a bit, and Luhrmann allows full scenes to play out between the characters, it becomes easier to get caught up in the fascinating story and roll with the rhythm of the movie. Even though the chapters in Elvis’ early life are presented very quickly due to time constraints, it mostly avoids falling into the standard cliches of musical biopics which 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story lambasted so mercilessly.
One aspect of the film that is done particularly well is the acknowledgement of African-American music and style that Elvis adopted in his stage persona. An early scene of Elvis hanging out at Club Handy with B.B. King (a very effective Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Little Richard (Alton Mason) is one of Luhrmann’s strongest moments in the film. There is also a late scene between Elvis and Tom Parker that works very well. The common thread that links these two scenes are the restraint Luhrmann shows in both. He lets the characters take the lead and work their magic; as I described earlier, he lets the movie come up for air and take a breath. Moments in between are often so scattered and busy that it becomes exhausting.
Similarly affecting are the scenes portraying the troubled relationship between Elvis and Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). They have a few intimate, quiet scenes that really convince you of why they fell in love with each other and how much his phenomenal success takes a toll on their pairing. DeJonge gives a subtle and nice performance; her scenes with Butler work so well because their eyes are expressive and show the love and the hurt in their souls. As Elvis’ overwhelmed but loving parents, Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh are also nicely tuned in and play well off of Butler.
While there were certain aspects about Elvis that were not my cup of tea, I acknowledge that it is an effective and often moving film that people who are big fans of Elvis Presley will likely cherish for what it does get right. For those who are not as familiar with Elvis, possibly because of age, the film also offers a good concise history of the mania and obsession that gripped the nation. Even though Luhrmann certainly does seem to enjoy reminding the audience constantly that this is his movie, he also manages to communicate that he genuinely does have a love for The King. And again, at every turn, there’s always Austin Butler who somehow achieves the impossible. He is truly something else to behold.