Released: 23rd June
Seen: 12th July
For years now there has been a conspiracy theory that Elvis Presley isn’t dead. The story goes that Elvis grew tired of fame and of his exhausting schedule and so he faked his own death and went off to live as a normal person. People claim to see him in coffee shops, he works in a little cafe in the middle of the desert, people just see Elvis all the time. I have never subscribed to this theory, I firmly believed for years that Elvis Aaron Presley died on August 16,1977 in his home in Memphis… now I might have to question that because Austin Butler might just be the pseudonym that Elvis chose to perform under one last time.
Elvis is told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) from the moment he discovered a young Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) and put him to work performing in a carnival. From that point on we witness the rise and fall and rise and fall of Elvis, from the heights of his first concerts that were so lewd he risked arrest to the lows of having to join the army in order to repair his image to the new heights of being a celebrated Vegas superstar to the downside of being practically worked to death by a Colonel with a gambling addiction and no real desire to see Elvis as anything more than a sideshow act he could make a little money from.
I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I’m not a huge fan of biopics, they’re pretty much all the same and are really only good for the lead performance. It takes quite a lot for me to actually enjoy a biopic, indeed the only biopic I’ve ever truly loved was Rocketman which set the bar for this genre so high that it feels unlikely anyone will ever come close… is what I would’ve said before seeing Elvis because damnit, this film is absolutely amazing and it’s down to a few bold decisions that it works better than almost any biopic has the right to. Granted, it’s not as good as Rocketman but it’s about as close as I think we’re going to get.
The main reason that Elvis works as well as it does is just the pure Baz Luhrmann of it all. Baz has never met a stylistic effect he didn’t like and he is known for just throwing everything he can think of onto the screen and arranging it in such a way that it’s captivating and he does that here to great effect. From the big bombastic opening sequence to the frenetic editing, everything moves at lightning speed for so much of the film until they hit the emotional peaks at which point Baz pulls back like the expert showman he is and just lets the dramatic moments linger as long as he possibly can before he kicks back into high gear and gets the audience through to the next big scene.
The insane pace of the film is fit for the king of rock and roll, it runs through his entire life and relies on the audience to keep up. Anything that isn’t needed for the core story (like, for example, any recreations of his classic films) is thrown aside so we can focus on the big picture issues like racism…. Oh yeah, this film knows for a fact that the history of Elvis is intrinsically tied to the history of black music and segregation, after all, Elvis was the white boy who sang black music and made it marketable to a mainstream audience. The film really makes sure the names of Big Mama Thornton, BB King and Little Richard are put right there beside Elvis and make it clear that they’re where the music came from. Now, we can obviously spend hours discussing if Elvis took their music out of love or just out of cultural appropriation but that’s not something I’m qualified to talk about, but the movie does not shy away from where it came from which is genuinely impressive.
It also helps that the film is guided along effortlessly by the compelling narration of Colonel Parker since the entire story is told from his perspective. It helps that Tom Hanks is so charismatic that you will gleefully listen to the tale being told this way, even when Colonel Parker reveals himself to be absolute scum. It’s a very controlled performance that is there to anchor everything, even with the eccentricities of Baz’s filmmaking or the energy of the musical numbers, the narration of the Colonel really does help keep things going and gives the film something it can hold onto… which it needed so that the main performance could truly shine.
Austin Butler is probably getting an Oscar for this, let’s just pencil that in right now. His performance as Elvis is THE reason to get a ticket, it’s one of the most complete transformations you will ever see in the cinema. He doesn’t just emulate Elvis, he became Elvis from the way he moves his feet in those blue suede shoes to the way he looks at the girl in the front row of any performance he gives throughout the movie. It’s jaw-dropping, the kind of performance you only give if you give your entire heart and soul to every single second of film. The soundtrack claims that Austin sings some songs and others are Elvis originals, good luck picking out which is which because his performance is that good. For those of us who weren’t around during Elvis’ heyday, this performance will make it very clear why he had audiences losing their minds and why he had police aching to arrest him for lewd behaviour. Be prepared, this is the big Oscar performance of the year so far.
Now obviously, like most biopics, there are some things that are glossed over here. The question of cultural appropriation/appreciation could have been handled better, maybe we also could’ve addressed the reality that Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) was 14 when she met Elvis because that feels like that should be an essential thing to bring up. Obviously, some stuff is left out because in a 2 and a half-hour biopic you have to cut some things, some of the things they cut were important enough that you feel their loss. His entire acting career is just a montage, these cuts are needed but you still feel their loss and, in some cases, it feels like things were deleted to paint a more positive picture of Elvis.
Fortunately, that positive picture of Elvis is absolutely remarkable. The musical numbers are energetic and soaked with pure passion, the performances are incredible and the lead actor is just showing off every skill he has and then inventing a few new skills just for fun. It’s a visual delight in the way that only Baz Luhrmann can somehow pull off. From start to finish, Elvis is a joyride dedicated to a legendary rocker who was drained dry by a business that refuses to see its artists as anything other than cash cows waiting to be milked. Now hopefully we can see a brighter picture of who Elvis was and appreciate him just a little more for what he did.