Elvis Review: A Little Less Convention, A Little More Action
On paper, Elvis is your standard musician biopic. It hits all the usual plot beats: preternaturally gifted child finds music in poverty, rises to stardom, falls from grace, stages a comeback, becomes an icon. Of course, there’s also a corrupt manager exploiting the young star, faithful recreations of his most celebrated performances, cursory references to major historical events, and an archival footage montage to remind you that, yes, this was a real person.
Carried by an energetic Austin Butler, Elvis follows the titular King of Rock and Roll from his impoverished childhood in rural Mississippi through his rise from the Memphis music scene to nationwide stardom. The film chronicles his rises and falls, but the real dramatic thrust is the relationship between Elvis and manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a portly, strangely accented man with a gambling problem and a shady past. It’s a rare misstep of a performance from Hanks, who plays Parker like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Goldmember (it doesn’t help that Luhrmann has him puttering and murmuring around a hallucinatory casino in a hospital gown as the film’s framing device). On the other hand, Butler delivers a starmaking turn as Elvis, embodying the iconography of one of the world’s most famous men while imbuing him with real pathos. He especially shines in the performance scenes, exuding the charisma and carnal physicality that made Elvis a star.
Like many musician biopics, Elvis can feel a bit like an overstuffed Greatest Hits album at times—Presley’s recording and concert successes, forays into film and television, and Vegas residency all get significant airtime, in addition to his marriage to Lisa Marie, addiction struggles, and financial exploitation by Parker— But Elvis is more than just an average tale of a musician’s rise and fall. I mean, sure, it is that, but it’s also a Baz Luhrmann picture, which means it’s a maximalist visual spectacle with unparalleled visual panache, kinetic pacing, and anachronistic flourishes that elevate it beyond the standard trappings of its genre.
Luhrmann’s visual and sonic excesses are a perfect match for this material. Mandy Walker’s frenetic camerawork mirrors Elvis’s iconic gyrations, somehow managing to capture what a huge deal his pelvic thrusting was for his repressed (and musically segregated) audience. Anachronistic flourishes in the soundtrack (a Luhrmann trademark) help to reinforce how thrilling and novel Elvis’s sound was to white audiences at the time, and Luhrmann’s wife and longtime collaborator Catherine Martin’s costumes and sets are appropriately extravagant for a man billed as the King. It’s worth noting that the film never shies away from Elvis’s Black musical influences—BB King, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, and Mahalia Jackson all make appearances—even if attempts to make him into some kind of civil rights icon in the back half of the plot feel unearned.
Despite the obvious limitations in its script (namely the overextended scope and largely cliched dialogue), Elvis’s shortcomings are fully overcome by the sheer force of Luhrmann’s showmanship. If we’re going to keep making musician biopics—and given their success at the box office and with awards voters, they’re not going away anytime soon—then let them all be made by filmmakers with visions this audacious.