Baz Luhrmann is a director who you can be sure will use the medium of cinema to show you something you’ve never seen before. From people taking ballroom dancing far too seriously in Strictly Ballroom to the mashup of Shakespearean language in a modern setting for Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann always find a stylish way to tell a story. So when he chose to make a movie about Elvis Presley, you knew we were in for a show.
The question is, 'What kind of a show would we get?' And while Elvis is full of music, it’s not a musical like Moulin Rouge. It's a biopic in that it tells the story of the lives of characters that really existed, but it’s only ever a surface-level read of those characters. What makes Elvis most interesting is that what Baz Luhrmann has actually made here. It's his version of a superhero movie. And every great superhero also needs a supervillain. Elvis has that, too.
The superhero connections to Elvis aren’t simply subtext but actual text. Early on in one of the movie’s many flashbacks, which are technically inside another flashback, as the entire film is told to us by a slowly dying Col. Tom Parker, we learn that Elvis loved to read comic books growing up, and saw himself as Captain Marvel Jr. Elvis wants to play the hero of the story, and here he is that, if a tragic one.
Elvis is style over substance, but it’s got a hell of a lot of style.
The movie is called Elvis but to be clear Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) is only half the story. The movie is just as much about Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the man who “discovered” the young Elvis and forced himself into becoming his manager.
Elvis has all the flash and glamour that you’d come to expect from the director of Moulin Rouge or the more recent The Great Gatsby. The first few minutes of the film might make some viewers motion sick in the way the camera twists and turns and zooms in quick succession. The cinematography mostly calms down after that, but everything is always bright and colorful, making you feel like you're in another world... even though this is supposed to be a story set in our reality.
Like Gatsby, music is a key player in the story, almost a character unto itself. The music is usually that of Elvis of course, or of Austin Butler as Elvis, but when the film decides it needs a bit more modern take on the soundtrack, we’ll get that during peak emotional moments. And when the soundtrack needs a superhero anthem, the score is there as well. The music that plays as Elvis first walks out on stage at the beginning of what would become the singer's comeback television special, might as well be the Avengers' theme. Elvis’ black leather is his supersuit. Basically, he is Captain America.
Tom Hanks is an amazing villain.
Baz Luhrmann’s style and flash are as impressive as ever, but that's only going to take a movie so far. At the end of the day, the two leads need to carry this film and they are both very much up for the task. Tom Hanks is great in his performance. What is most surprising is just how good he is at being bad. Col. Tom Parker believes that he, not Elvis, is the hero of this story, and in Hanks you truly believe that, if nothing else, he believes it.
Elvis himself has been portrayed on film at least as many times as Elvis himself made movies. Austin Butler may be the absolute best of the interpretations. He has the look, and he can shake his hips as well as anybody. But like Hanks, he goes beyond simply playing the role and he becomes it. He exudes the charisma necessary to play Elvis. The magic dissipates slightly near the end of the film when Butler is playing a much older Elvis. But it’s a minor detail.
Austin Butler may be the greatest on screen Elvis since Elvis.
However, while the two leads do shine, the fact that they share the screen so well does come at a cost. To continue with the superhero movie analogy, there’s a reason that most comic book movies have forgettable villains. The story needs to focus on the hero in order to give them a satisfying arc. By splitting its time evenly between hero and villain, Elvis gives us two compelling characters, but isn’t able to make either characters’ journey completely satisfying.
Elvis covers basically the entire life of the King of Rock 'N; Roll, and while you can cover a lot of ground in two hours and 40 minutes, you can’t show everything. As such, emotional moments fall flat because the movie wasn’t able to build to them successfully. The movie seems to hope that since you probably know the broad strokes of the Elvis Presley story, it can gloss over some details and still hit the mark. It doesn’t work.
Elvis isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a big movie that takes big swings and any fan of Elvis Presley or Baz Luhrmann movies is going to want to check this one out. It tells the story of Elvis in a very different way which makes it compelling and entertaining despite some flaws.
CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.
By Mike Reyes
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