Let’s hear it for lewd gyrations! Elvis is a hip-swingingly, foot-stompingly great portrait of the King of Rock-and-Roll. Fuelled by a full-throttle performance by Austin Butler and the assured vision of director Baz Luhrmann, Elvis is an amped-up biopic. Audiences familiar with Luhrmann’s signature panache know idea what to expect. It’s a bedazzled, popped, and pimped-out period piece with verve and meticulously detailed swagger. It’s a Luhrmann film through and through with its kinetic energy and wall-to-wall soundtrack that blasts at 11. If Moulin Rouge! announced itself with an exclamation point, Lurhmann’s film is an all-caps, bolded, and assertively underlined ELVIS!!!. Elvis is as shook as an Elvis film could be.
Luhrmann’s signature direction, moreover, offset the relatively conventional scripting with writers Craig Pearce (Moulin Rouge!), Sam Bromell (Netflix’s The Get Down), and Jeremy Donner (The Killing). The film takes the tried and tested childhood to grave narrative. It charts Presley’s inspiration from his young age, his battles with addiction, and his tragically early demise as expected. Some scenes could easily be lifted from Ray, Respect, or heck even Aline with Luhrmann’s campy-chic bombast.
However, the film understands that the story of Elvis Presley is, somewhat, the tale of the soul of America. (Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The King explores this metaphor quite brilliantly.) From basking in the power of gospel music as a boy (played by Chaydon Jay in his younger years) to wowing the world under the bright lights of Vegas, Presley’s story is one of the power of music to entertain, inspire, and transform. The film similarly sees itself in conversation with many singers inspired by Elvis. Lurhmann layers the soundtrack with covers by contemporary artists, keeping Presley’s voice alive but situating its legacy in the present.
Hanks of Gucci
The biggest surprise about Elvis, however, is that The King isn’t the star of his own show. Instead, the film frames the story within the perspective of Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). An unreliable narrator if there ever was one, the sweaty, rambling Parker tells the story just a few heartbeats from the grave. Parker insists that he wasn’t responsible for Presley’s death, asking how one could a career that he made. He calls himself the “Snow Man” in reference to being a wily entrepreneur (re: charlatan) and spins Presley’s biography as if practicing his story for recital at the pearly gates of heaven.
If the man upstairs has any sense, however, he’ll kick Parker to the fiery inferno. Sporting a bizarre accent that evokes Parker’s statelessness, but can only be traced back to House of Gucci, Hanks simply overwhelms the film. Narratively, there’s a great argument to be made for framing the story within the perspective of someone who felt entitled to 50% of Presley’s success. The film volleys between musical glimpse of Presley’s life and Parker’s Shakespearean asides. The conceit might’ve worked had Hanks not been so comically bad. Moreover, the few clips available of Parker indicate a clear Southern drawl on the huckster’s tongue. Hanks’ creative choice is somewhat dubious given that he’s otherwise one of Hollywood’s most reliably risk-averse leads. He’s this year’s Jared Leto in a superior make-up job.
A Star Is Born
On the other hand, since Hanks is so spectacularly awful, he makes Butler’s performance doubly remarkable. Butler’s Elvis is a performance for the books. It’s bold to attempt one of the most recognizable voices in rock. However, Butler admirably performs his own vocals for the early Presley tunes and sings blended with the King during later acts. Whether die-hard fans or casual viewers can spot the difference barely matters: Butler bets big and wins.
He electrifies with the confidence, charisma, and swagger with which he brings Presley alive. Just as Presley’s first performances inspired his fans to whip their panties off and shriek to the heavens, Butler inspires a similar thrill. The actor, who previously appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… and is already tapped for the Dune sequel, truly has magnetic screen presence. To see Butler’s Elvis invigorate the crowds in Vegas is to witness the makings of a star.
A Tour through Musical History
The energy of the performance makes the film exhausting, but invigoratingly so. Elvis tours through a landmark chapter in the history of rock music. The biography’s freewheeling exploration of Presley’s life finds as many narrative signposts in Presley’s influences it does in his life. For example, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) gets about as much screentime as B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). Both actors are impressive, but Luhrmann and company are more interested in melodies than melodrama. The film tours churches, blues clubs, and dive bars to shape the progression of Presley’s voice.
In doing so, Elvis considers Presley’s ability to bridge racial divides in America. From the early scenes, Parker clashes with his white-bread headliner (David Wenham) who protests that his co-star sounds “too Black.” The authorities swoop in on Elvis as his popularity explodes. Their objections about his sexualized swinging hips carry obvious racial stereotypes as they worry that knees will buckle of women both white and Black, therefore violating segregation laws thwarted by the power of music.
On the other hand, Elvis simplifies the racial dynamics at play in Presley’s music. The film features Big Momma Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) belting out her blues tune “Hound Dog” with sass and swagger. A transactional element follows and Elvis is quickly atop the charts with his hit cover. But the film doesn’t delve into the larger legacy of white performers profiting off Black music under the guise of social progress.
Luhrmann’s Signature Needle Drop
While Luhrmann sidesteps this facet of Presley’s career—a big step given the prominence of “Hound Dog” in both the film and these conversations, he understands that music is cyclical. Although Butler soulfully injects Presley’s voice into the film, Presley’s music arises through covers by Black artists. Musicians like Yola, Lenesha Randolph, CeeLo Green, and Jazmine Sullivan reclaim Presley hits that originated in spirituals or on plantations. Where Luhrmann’s soundtracks sometimes feel anachronistic, this one is powerfully, often ingeniously, puts a historical narrative in conversation with the present. One needle drop after another signals that this is (mostly) Elvis’s movie, but the mic doesn’t drop with the King.