From the director that brought us ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and ‘Gatsby’, Baz Luhrmann lends his unmistakable genius of cinematic spectacle to the life of American rock and roll legend Elvis Presley in the musical biopic ‘Elvis.’
Luhrmann (with a screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) takes broad strokes and focuses on the phenomenon of Elvis – how his persona and music changed the fabric of America – and his relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker. Told in the point-of-view of Parker, as he is recalling the rise and fall of Elvis in a delirious state of a morphine high near his death, Parker narrates the story completely aware of the audience, with Tom Hanks (playing Parker) looking straight at the camera at some point and even referring to us as ‘you.’
The self-awareness of the film’s approach creates a space for Luhrmann to go all-out with his filmmaking techniques. He splices live footage with his film, uses multiple frames, jumps back and forth through time in a dazzling fury, and even infuses contemporary music production techniques when Elvis sings to seamlessly jump from scene to scene on a song number while amplifying what it was in Elvis Presley’s music that was so charged and moving.
Told from the villain’s point-of-view (because Colonel Tom Parker was revealed to be as such) it pushes Elvis into the space of a mythical being. His rags to riches story and how his life is the quintessential American dream (including the reality of being consumed by the same industry he found his mark in due to his naivete) is rendered like a fable or a fairytale except all this really happened.
More than Hanks, who delivers a rather unsurprising villain (complete with full prosthetics and a fat suit), it is Austin Butler who truly grounds this movie with an embodiment of a character that is full of charisma and passion and sexual energy.
While I’m familiar with a lot of Elvis Presley’s songs (more than I realised after watching this film) I’m not that familiar with the singer himself nor his actual career so I don’t feel comfortable talking about Butler’s portrayal of Presley. But what he does accomplish is to imbue Elvis with so much energy that when the women start screaming at his onstage gyrations and primal stage presence, I feel like I understand what the whole phenomenon of Elvis is about.
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And while the film, even at 159 minutes, only really scratches the surface of Elvis’ life and career, what I do enjoy about the movie is how it really manages to show his connection to black music – gospel and rhythm and blues – and really amps up how Elvis Presley found his roots in these genres of music.
His connection to the black community of Memphis and Beale Street, with legends like B. B. King and Mahalia Jackson in tow, really brings to light why people like Al Green and Little Richard credit Presley for “opening the doors to black music.” This is well-executed through Luhrmann’s editing where he splices three timelines in one song, allowing us to see how Presley’s youth and listening to gospel choir influences his music in his early years until the later part of his career. The effect is dazzling.
With the intercutting of the scenes and sounds, it even appears that the primarily white audience of Elvis are applauding and cheering for the black singers and musicians of Elvis Presley’s past. The effect is spell-binding.
Baz Luhrmann is a director of grand spectacle. He barely has any quiet moments in his film and his character’s most introspective moments are amped up by a soaring musical score and high drama. Subtlety is not Luhrmann’s strength and we don’t go and watch a Baz Luhrmann film for that. What he delivers in turn is a high-energy rock musical, sometimes even playing contemporary rap music in selected scenes, to underscore how timeless this story is and how relevant Elvis Presley’s legacy to American (and global) music is.
While the film really explores the villainy of Colonel Tom Parker and his hand at both the rise and fall of the rock and roll legend, at over two hours, I would’ve wanted just a little bit more of his life with Priscilla, his wife. Played by Olivia DeJonge, Priscilla is set up as a counterpoint for Parker’s manipulations but she hardly gets to do anything much in the narrative.
What we get instead are some amazing performances by Butler, singing some songs I’ve forgotten and some songs I love that I didn’t even realize were Presley’s that truly showcased the power of his stage presence and his voice. Butler sings the songs in his early years but they interpolated recordings of Presley in his later years into Butler’s voice to mark the lowering of his tonal register. The music of this film, like any Baz Luhrmann film, is absolutely fantastic and I can’t wait for the album to be out on streaming (it isn’t out yet on Spotify as I’m writing this).
‘Elvis’ is a big, grand rock and roll musical with high energy and a brilliant performance by Austin Butler. And while it never really manages to get to a genuinely soft and tender moment due to its scale, it manages to contextualize the legend that is Elvis Presley. It’s definitely something to watch in a cinema with really good sound.