From his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi to his rise to stardom starting in Memphis, Tennessee and his conquering of Las Vegas, Nevada, Elvis Presley becomes the first rock ‘n roll star and changes the world with his music.
Elvis Presley was and perhaps still is the most famous performer of all time and a name that still resonates across the globe nearly 50 years after his death. To attempt to do justice to his life story, enter Baz Luhrmann, the Australian filmmaker responsible for movies such as ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’, and enter relative newcomer Austin Butler into the substantially sized blue suede shoes of Elvis Presley. Unlike most recent biopics, ‘Elvis’ covers the life of its subject from cradle to grave rather than honing in on one period and it makes for an exhilarating journey through the career and music of the King of Rock and Roll.
This is a giddy, frenetic and wildly entertaining movie that not so much as covers the life of Elvis as it beats you into submission with it. It is a film that values style above all else (it is a Baz Luhrmann film after all) but I did feel the substance was there even if it mainly views Elvis as others see him and doesn’t truly get into his soul. ‘Elvis’ is more interested in adding to the myth and legend of Elvis than in getting into the person he truly was beneath the showbiz persona, but, perhaps, as the movie hints, that’s because there wasn’t really a separation of the man and the performer. In many respects this feels like a fitting approach for a man that was more icon than person, a situation that played a large part in why Elvis struggled so much particularly in later life.
We see Elvis primarily through the eyes of his lifelong manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a man with an interesting story of his own that is only partially touched on in this movie. Hanks plays him with a fat suit, prosthetics and a phony accent, and for me it worked well for a master manipulator who always seems to be putting on an act. If he feels like a comic book villain or a caricature, that’s perhaps because he was, or at least because Lurhmann in ‘Elvis’ wishes to present him in such a way. He discovers Elvis as a 20 year old talent with a brilliant voice and a stage presence unlike any other, and he is the key factor in driving Elvis’s career, for good and ill. Elvis is played by Austin Butler in a captivating performance through all stages of his life – his best work is in the performance recreations (much like Rami Malek and Taron Egerton in other recent music biopics) but he also excels in the rare non-performing moments, whether he be clashing with Parker or falling in and out of love with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).
Luhrmann handles this material with a breathless energy and the dizzying, kinetic editing is used to great effect particularly at the beginning to set the scene for what is going to follow. It’s nearly three hours long but you barely get a minute to stop and think, and this is a dizzying, thrilling ride through one heck of a career, not to mention seemingly every cultural development that occurred over the same period. That’s not to say that ‘Elvis’ is solely focused on popcorn entertainment, and there are some terrific moments where Luhrmann’s blend of storytelling and his unique style come together wonderfully, namely in the juxtaposition of Parker’s selfish key betrayal at the Vegas hotel with a brilliant performance of ‘Suspicious Minds’. I used to love Elvis as a kid and this movie reminded me (if it was ever needed!) of the talent and depth of quality songs he had in his repertoire, as well as the tragic story underneath that underpinned it all.
Baz Luhrmann is the perfect director to handle the story of such an icon and this is a true rock and roll movie about the ultimate rock and roll star – ‘Elvis’ is a thrilling and breathtaking act of moviemaking that for the most part does justice to the iconic star at its centre.
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Luke Bracey, Natasha Bassett, David Wenham, Joshua Fisk, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leon Ford, Kate Mulvany, Josh McConville, Yola Quartey, Alton Mason, Gary Clark Jr., Christopher Sommers, Nicholas Bell, Anthony LaPaglia and Dacre Montgomery
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