Director Baz Luhrmann, known for his big, bombastic, highly stylized films like Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, and 2013’s The Great Gatsby, was first announced to be helming an Elvis biopic in 2014. He’s since had 8 years to work on the film, a film Warner Brothers is betting their entire summer slate on and is launching former Disney and Nickelodeon actor Austin Butler’s career into the mainstream. And it’s the first big biopic of one of the most popular musicians and icons of all time.
So, did Baz get it right?
Elvis is right in line with Luhrmann’s other work. It’s epic in scope, long, sprawling, unevenly paced, energetic, inventively visual, and has a stellar soundtrack. With a movie as ambitious and messy as this one, there are plenty of things to critique. But there are also many moments where everything comes together, and Luhrmann’s style marries with the material perfectly, so that, all in all, the film has really stuck with me.
A musical biopic has the tough task of portraying several facets: the historical facts of the artist’s life, the inner life of the artist, how the artist was perceived by his or her contemporary audiences, and the artist’s place in history. Not all biopics can or try to do all these things. But Elvis does, and of these four categories, Elvis is best at conveying how Elvis was perceived at the time. The movie viscerally captures people’s reactions to Elvis’s dancing, his politics, and his sound, and these are the sections of the film that are a perfect match of Lurhman’s delirious styling and editing. Watching these scenes, I got it. I understood Elvis Presley: icon. I understood why he was seen as such a threat and a seductive figure, his sex appeal, his musical uniqueness, his potential, and his raw star power. I felt it.
Much of it also just comes down to a truly mesmerizing performance by Austin Butler as Elvis. Butler is completely deserving of all the praise he’s been getting. He melts into the role, never feeling like an impersonator. His star power is blinding, yet there is a depth of humanity and sincerity he brings that transcends the script. I hope the Academy doesn’t dismiss the hype and does, in fact, nominate him for best actor.
But while Butler gives it his all, the script steers away from giving Elvis introspective moments that allow us to get more into his head. He is reactive to other people and situations, but we don’t get to really know Elvis, especially once he becomes the figure of Elvis Presley. We don’t really get to know the man suffering under the weight of the role he’s playing. This is where the film’s breakneck pace, the heavy focus on his early life and career, and the lack of time spent on his final years, become a problem. While the decision not to dwell on Elvis’s final days probably comes from a place of respect and not wanting to sensationalize his downward spiral, I think it contributes to the movie’s overall problem of robbing The King of complexity.
Part of this also comes from the framing device. The film is narrated by Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. Hank’s performance has been very polarizing. Unlike some critics, I don’t think Hanks is inherently miscast. In moments, it really works, such as scenes where the Colonel is trying to proposition himself as a pseudo-father figure for Elvis, because on a meta-level it’s playing against Hank’s persona as a good-natured “America’s dad.” But in other parts of the film, it doesn’t work at all, with his exaggerated accent and prosthetics making him cartoonish. The performance is off-putting, but not in the way I’m sure Hanks intended. To me, it doesn’t ruin the movie, but it is one of its most erratic elements.
Besides Hanks, the other big criticism of the film has been how the film tries to pay tribute to the Black musicians Elvis was influenced by (or, depending on how you see it, stole from). Despite the effort, these musicians are still relegated to the sidelines, mostly just to say encouraging things to Elvis. The movie flattens the issue to basically: “Elvis was a well-meaning appreciator of Black music and had personal ties to it, and he helped open a lot of doors and break down the color barrier.” Which, while that may be somewhat true, is not the whole truth, and the priority is clearly preserving Elvis’s likeability over all else. But in the film’s defense, this isn’t an academic discussion. This is an emotional rendering of Elvis’s life, not an objective perspective on his place in music history, and one that is not even told from Elvis’s perspective. In the same vein, the movie also sidesteps looking too closely at the relationship between Elvis and his wife Priscila (Olivia DeJonge), instead placing her in a very stereotypical wife role, barely giving her any lines or significant screen time.
Because of these elements of Elvis’s story that are sidestepped or rushed through, when I left the theater I immediately began googling all sorts of things to fill in the blanks: Elvis Presley’s death. Tom Parker. Elvis Priscilla relationship. B.B King. Original Hound Dog. Going in, I was pretty unfamiliar with Elvis’s story. But the movie was so compelling, even with its flaws, that I wanted to know more. In the end, while Elvis stumbles in telling the darker tragedy of Elvis Presley, it succeeds as a spectacle that captures the enduring power of the Elvis myth.
– Madeleine D.