Synopsis – A look at the life of the legendary rock and roll star, Elvis Presley.
My Take – With recent musical biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocket Man (2019), doing wonders, especially at the box office, it was only time when the life story of Elvis Presley, one of the greatest singers ever to perform, was brought to the screen.
Though he passed away long before millennials were born, dubbed as the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley continues to have a huge influence on pop culture with his songs, style and mannerisms. Still recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling solo music artist of all time, the man inspired many, entertained millions, and has been loved by even more people.
However, a curious thing this musical biographical drama does is that it takes you through the Elvis Presley era through the conniving eyes of Col. Tom Parker, his manager. Who saw early promise in his politically radical blend of country and R’n’B and slyly positioned himself as the sole overseer of the star’s creative enterprise. From winning him a contract with RCA Records to merchandising deals, TV appearances and eventually an acting career. But as it turned out, Parker took far more in return.
As in 1980, a judge ruled that he had defrauded the Presley estate by millions. Some even blame him for pushing an overworked Elvis to the brink and ultimately contributing to his death at the age of 42.
While the approach might seem bizarre, but in the hands of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby), who brings in his well-known kinetic musical madness and manic colorfulness into the mix, we get to witness a kaleidoscopic portrait of The King and his puppet-master promoter that is sure to leave one spellbound for 159 minutes.
Sure, though it comes with the usual beats of the genre, the film is nonetheless terrifically enjoyable, with lots of swagger to spare and a star-making central performance from Austin Butler in the titular role. A film dedicated to leave his fans mesmerized with his memories.
Narrated by Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a gambling addict and former carnival promoter with an eye for talent who on his dying bed recounts the Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) story with a delusional insistence that the King’s death wasn’t his fault, even pointing the finger of blame at his legion of fans whose adoration demanded so much from Elvis.
Going back to the phase when Presley was regionally launching his singing career, with glimpses at his poor childhood. Although Parker was already managing country singer Hank Snow (David Wenham), but as soon as he hears Presley on the radio and then sees him perform, he knew Elvis was a sultry thirst trap for a generation of teenagers that for the first time in history had purchasing power, and goes on to promise the young star a life of fame and fortune if he takes him on as manager, by binding him a contract by convincing his parents (Richard Roxburgh and Helen Thomson).
The film goes on to see his meteoric rise, his troubles with the law due to his sexually provocative wiggling and over-energized interpretations, his friendships with African American legends most notably B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and his married life with wife Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge).
But as his popularity grew, Elvis also became a controversial figure in the media that brought him a lot of criticism from political and extreme Americanized socialists, something which begins to put a strain on the relationship of the star and the manager.
Whilst the relationship between Elvis and the Colonel, as well as the trajectories, decisions and conflict that arise from it are a central part of the film, they’re not the only staging ground for expertly crafted drama. We’re given front-row seats to see he was rocked by landmark events such as the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., he’s rolled over by the passing of his mother, and drew inspiration from contemporary legends.
We’re shown the vacuum of space that surrounded the first truly global megastar, what happens when that star’s fire begins to wane, and the astral collapse kick-started by the stage lights going dark.
Here, director Baz Luhrmann and co-writers Jeremy Doner, Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce take care of all things to present you with a spicy story which fits into mainstream cinema’s template. While for the most part this is a reprise of the music-biopic format from the humble beginnings, the rise to fame, the run-ins with the law, drugs, divorce, the comeback, and ultimately the undoing, but director Luhrmann tackles the story with exuberant aplomb, deploying every device up his flared sleeve, including snazzy transitions, hallucinatory visions, anachronistic soundtrack choices, animated flashbacks, corkscrew camerawork, swooping CG establishing shots, crash zooms, split screens, archive footage and music-video quick cuts to ensure the energy never sags, especially when Elvis is on stage, whipping his largely female fan base into a gleefully silly mass hysteria.
Though the film somewhat makes the King seem something of a naive person trapped under Parker’s spell, but by framing his story through Parker’s, the film is cannily able to take a step back from the intimate details of the musician’s life. Instead it views him as a nuclear warhead of sensuality and cool, someone stood at the very crossroads of a fierce culture war.
Yes, in its desire to fit everything in, the film only skims the surface rather than taking the time to dig deeper into more aspects of his life like his marriage. But fans of the singer (like myself) will get everything they want from the show-stopping glitz of the musical numbers. He deserved a biopic befitting his stature, and we can only thank director Luhrmann for providing him with an expedient tribute in the form of this film.
It also helps that Austin Butler holds the entire film together. Though the resemblance is fleeting, Butler’s performance and his inhabiting of the King of Rock and Roll, represents nothing less than iconic possession. Here, Butler is truly terrific and thoroughly shines in the role. He is so charismatic and really embodies everything that Elvis was. Giving much more than an Elvis impersonation which so many performers have done before.
Alongside him is none other than one of the best actors ever, Tom Hanks. It’s almost odd to watch a performance so all-consuming that he feels like an accessory. But buried underneath all that layers of prosthetics and a pantomime Dutch accent, is the warm smirk of America’s dad.
In supporting roles, Olivia DeJonge is faultless and radiant, while Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh are efficiently superb. In other roles, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey, Dacre Montgomery and Natasha Bassett leave a mark. On the whole, ‘Elvis’ is an incredibly turbocharged and nostalgic ode to a musical and cultural icon.
Directed – Baz Luhrmann
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 159 minutes