Let’s talk about Elvis.
There’s been an interesting discussion revolving around Elvis as we got closer to the release of this movie. While he is definitely a music legend, how relevant is he today? Because let’s be honest, when was the last time you actually heard an Elvis song out in the wild? Like, you were just in the car and Suspicious Minds came on? I bet you it was a long time ago and if it wasn’t, I bet it was due to this film coming out soon. For an artist with such huge influence, you really don’t hear his music much anymore. You also don’t see many Elvis superfans about compared to other legendary acts from the past. But maybe with a definitive biopic, he can become relevant to a modern audience again?
Elvis Presley starts causing a stir in his local musical scene by being a white man who sings and dances like a black man. Colonel Parker realises his talent and decides to make him the biggest star in the world, though controversy awaits.
In what seems to be an ideal pairing, this biopic has been directed by Baz Luhrmann. If you don’t know the name, firstly, remember to wear sunscreen. Secondly, he’s previously been the director of films such as Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, which are very unique movies. His style can only be described as being like a toddler whose been giving unlimited time on the pick and mix. It’s incredibly hyperactive and is prone to giving you a headache. It’s a mixture of quick cuts and camera movement that moves quicker than Usain Bolt with a bee up his arse. Really then, he’s very suitable to doing an Elvis biopic because he can really capture the mad energy he generated. I absolutely love every concert scene because with the way this film is shot, you not only get the exhilarating performance from Elvis but the mania from his fans. A big part of the history of Elvis was that he was the first man to have a truly mad fanbase and this film captures that, making his concerts into a mad delirium rather than some guy sings some pretty good songs. It’s a great pairing between the director and the subject material.
But what I really love is that Baz Luhrmann has now learned when his directing needs to be quiet. Moulin Rouge is beloved by many but it really didn’t know when to settle down and let the scenes speak for themselves, instead every scene even when emotional was a blur of cuts and camera movement. Here, when things need to get serious, Luhrmann becomes a much more conventional director to his credit. He allows the performances of the actors to be the star, not his camera. It’s refreshing to see and means I’m very hopeful for Luhrmann films in future. I’m not going to say it’s perfect because there’s at least 48 swooping shots of the International Hotel which are liable to give you motion sickness, but it’s probably the best Luhrmann has been.
The performances are great too. Austin Butler is a relative unknown and was a huge risk to put in such a big role like this one. But if he continues to be as good in other films as he is in this one, he’ll be a household name soon enough. He’s incredible in the role as he completely melts into the role of Elvis. I talk about how good the direction is for the concert scenes but it needed Butler to be incredible in the role for them to work and thankfully, he rises to the challenge. He comes alive in those scenes and you can easily see why so many people fell in love with Elvis when he showed up on the scene. But it’s when the film goes to its quieter moments when Elvis is showing unhappiness in his career direction and his realisation that he’s effectively been trapped into something he doesn’t want when Butler is at his best. On stage, Butler makes Elvis into an ethereal being that needs to be worshipped. Off it, he makes him into a Southern boy whose in way above his head.
We’ve talked about Elvis and his performances a lot so far but while his name is on the marquee, you could argue he’s not the main character. The main character could easily be Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks with an accent that does occasionally fall into being quite ridiculous. You have to hear him say ‘Santi Claus’ about eight times in two minutes and that’s definitely unintentionally funny. The film is actually told from his perspective as he talks directly to the audience after he ends up in the hospital. What starts off as a very fun character ends up becoming quite sinister as it goes on, with Hanks playing the subtle transformation from star maker to overly controlling perfectly. It is Hanks’ broadest performance in a long time but he manages to make it very villainous especially as we get close to the climax.
That’s necessary because the film is not just a document of Elvis’ career. It’s a tale of abuse. Essentially, Colonel Parker abusing Elvis monetarily and mentally in order to make sure his magic money tree doesn’t uproot and plant itself in another garden. He just wants Elvis to make a quick buck without thinking about his long term career and anytime someone else comes in with other ideas, he gets incredibly angry and upset. This due to a combination of reasons that gets revealed during the movie, but it’s done so well. Elvis obviously needs some sort of guiding figure in his life, especially after his mother is passing and Parker abuses that to make as much money as possible from Elvis. It’s tragic to watch because we know the story of Elvis does not have a happy ending. It is disappointing that Colonel Parker’s comeuppance is in the biopic text crawl at the end of the movie rather than during it though, as I felt the film needed that just to show he didn’t get a happy ending too.
Are there any other problems with this movie? Well, it’s more due to what they didn’t include. They do tackle Elvis’ complicated relationship with race. He was raised among black people and hence learned their music and culture and it’s why he sings like a black man, which is talked about a lot in the film. But he was the one who got popular because the 1950s wouldn’t allow black people to become national successes. Obviously this have some controversy at the time because of racism, but now it’s controversial because it’s often seen as Elvis appropriated black culture and made his money and fame off the back of people who couldn’t. The film makes a good defence of it but I’m going to guess that Public Enemy aren’t going to have their minds changed on it. The more controversial bit which can’t be defended is the glossing over of the dodgy relationship between Elvis and Priscilla. Did you know that Elvis fell in love with Priscilla when she was 14? This film doesn’t and I understand why because it wants to be a positive portrayal of Elvis but oof, it’s going to have questions asked of it for having Priscilla be a key character but this not being addressed.
Elvis is a great film. Sometimes, it does end up going too Luhrmann-like with a few shots that are repeatedly mad and I think he should have told Tom Hanks to dial down the accent a bit because it can devalue some of the scenes. But for the most part, this is the definitive biopic it wants to be. It tells the story of Elvis and explains why he was such a big deal and shows it in such a way that you feel like you a part of the riotous crowds that made up so many of his performances. This is a star making performance from Austin Butler and the only reason he won’t get nominations come awards season is due to the fact this was released in June and not December. You just can’t help falling in love with this film.