Baz Luhrmann's take on the king of rock 'n' roll is a sprawling, exhilarating spectacle, as led by an exceptional Austin Butler in the pompadour and jumpsuits.
June 22, 2022
Making a biopic about the king of rock 'n' roll, trust Baz Luhrmann to take his subject's words to heart: a little less conversation, a little more action. The Australian filmmaker's Elvis, his first feature since 2013's The Great Gatsby, isn't short on chatter. It's even narrated by Tom Hanks (Finch) as Colonel Tom Parker, the carnival barker who thrust Presley to fame (and, as Luhrmann likes to say, the man who was never a Colonel, never a Tom and never a Parker). But this chronology of an icon's life is at its best when it's showing rather than telling. That's when it sparkles brighter than a rhinestone on all-white attire, and gleams with more shine than all the lights in Las Vegas. That's when Elvis is electrifying, due to its treasure trove of recreated concert scenes — where Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) slides into Presley's blue suede shoes and lifetime's supply of jumpsuits like he's the man himself.
Butler is that hypnotic as Presley. Elvis is his biggest role to-date after starting out on Hannah Montana, sliding through other TV shows including Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, and also featuring in Yoga Hosers and The Dead Don't Die — and he's exceptional. Thanks to his blistering on-stage performance, shaken hips and all, the movie's gig sequences feel like Elvis hasn't ever left the building. Close your eyes and you'll think you were listening to the real thing. (In some cases, you are: the film's songs span Butler's vocals, Presley's and sometimes a mix of both). And yet it's how the concert footage looks, feels, lives, breathes, and places viewers in those excited and seduced crowds that's Elvis' true gem. It's meant to make movie-goers understand what it was like to be there, and why Presley became such a sensation. Aided by dazzling cinematography, editing and just all-round visual choreography, these parts of the picture — of which there's many, understandably — leave audiences as all shook up as a 1950s teenager or 1970s Vegas visitor.
Around such glorious centrepieces, Luhrmann constructs exactly the kind of Elvis extravaganza he was bound to. His film is big. It's bold. It's OTT. It's sprawling at two-and-a-half hours in length. It shimmers and swirls. It boasts flawless costume and production design by Catherine Martin, as his work does. It shows again that Luhrmann typically matches his now-instantly recognisable extroverted flair with his chosen subject (Australia aside). Balancing the writer/director's own style with the legend he's surveying can't have been easy, though, and it doesn't completely play out as slickly as Presley's greased-back pompadour. Elvis is never anything but engrossing, and it's a sight to behold. The one key element that doesn't gel as convincingly: using the scheming Parker as a narrator (unreliable, obviously) and framing device. It helps the movie unpack the smiling-but-cunning manager's outré role in Presley's life, but it's often just forceful, although so was Parker's presence in the star's career.
In a script by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell (The Get Down), Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby) and Jeremy Doner (TV's The Killing), the requisite details are covered. That includes the singer's birth in Tupelo, Mississippi, and extends through to his late-career Vegas residency — with plenty in the middle. His discovery by Parker, the impact upon his parents (Rake co-stars Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh), his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge, The Staircase), Graceland, America's puritanical reaction to his gyrating pelvis, the issues of race baked into the response to him as an artist: they're all featured. Thematically, those last two points thrum throughout the entire movie. Elvis questions why any hint of sex was such a shock, and why it was so easy for a white man who drew his songs, style and dance moves from Black culture, via his upbringing, to be dubbed a scandal.
Elvis also does what Luhrmann often does; he's never adapted a fairy tale (no, Moulin Rouge!'s green fairy doesn't count), but he adores larger-than-life stories that seem more than real. Like style, like narrative, clearly, and Presley's leap to the most famous man in the world and, sadly, to exploited, caught in a punishing trap, addicted, and then dead at just 42, has that touch to it here. Yes, that remains true even though this will always be a tragic story. That said, amid the visual flourishes that help cement the vibe — the filmmaker's usual circling images, split-screens, match cuts, frenzy of colour and visible lavishness, aided by cinematographer Mandy Walker (Mulan), plus editors Jonathan Redmond (The Great Gatsby) and Matt Villa (Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway) — there's an earthiness to Elvis. In fact, the ability to make everything both hyperreal and natural is one of the reasons the feature's live performance scenes have such a spark.
There isn't a second of Elvis that doesn't play like a Luhrmann film, of course; crucially, it's always an Elvis movie, too. There's that balance at work, even if viewers won't walk away knowing much more about the man behind the myth-sized superstardom — feeling more, however, happens fast, frenetically and often. Most choices that could've been jarring, such as the musical anachronisms, have depth to them. Luhrmann connects Presley's songs and influence with music since and now in several ways. This is a film about influences in two directions, smartly — because noting that Big Mama Thornton (first-timer Shonka Dukureh) was the first to record 'Hound Dog', that artists like BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr, Cyrano) shaped Presley, and that his musical roots trace back to gospel churches and revival tents, needed to be inescapable in an Elvis biopic circa 2022.
Also inescapable thanks to its Gold Coast shoot: spotting almost every Australian actor around Butler and Hanks, including David Wenham (The Furnace) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog) as carnival-circuit performers Hank Snow and Jimmie Rodgers Snow. Stranger Things' Dacre Montgomery plays director Steve Binder, who helmed Presley's 68 Comeback Special — the recreation of which is spellbinding. But Butler is always Elvis' force of nature. His physicality in the part, including as Presley ages, is stunning. The soulfulness baked into his portrayal is as well, and moving. That he acts circles around the prosthetics-laden Hanks, who ensures that the self-serving, one-note Parker is easily the film's villain, might sound fanciful in any other movie. But this is Elvis, and seeing Butler play Elvis is one for the money. Doing just that helped make Kurt Russell a star back in 1979, a mere two years after Presley's death, and that taking-care-of-business lightning bolt should strike again thanks to this exhilarating spectacle.