ELVIS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Helen Thomson (La Spagnola), Richard Roxburgh (Van Helsing), Olivia DeJonge (The Visit), Luke Bracey (Hacksaw Ridge), Natasha Bassett (Hail Caesar!), David Wenham (300), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Cyrano), Xavier Samuel (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog), Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things)

Director: Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!)

Writers: Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromell (The Get Down) and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet) and Jeremy Doner (The Killing)

Runtime: 2 hours 39 minutes

Release Date: 24th June (US, UK)

Synopsis: When rock ‘n roll pioneer Elvis Presley attracts the attention of ambitious huckster Colonel Tom Parker, the two form a tumultuous decade-spanning bond through Presley’s rise to stardom to his fall from grace.

Another year, another musician biopic; we seemingly can’t go 365 days without at least one. They’re a subgenre that reliably draws in audiences and awards contention, even though almost every single one is basically the same story with different coats of paint (again, Patrick H Willems did a great video breaking this down). However, Elvis certainly has its own unique draws. For one, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s first directing gig in nine years and, whether you like his aesthetic or not, it’s a style all his own and immediately makes this something more than a standard studio production. More than that even, it’s the first big-budget Hollywood film about the life of Elvis Presley, a figure who you would have thought would have gotten his glitzy production decades ago; there’s been a few TV movies and a miniseries, plus plenty of guest appearances in other major biopics, but never one to call his own. The mere idea of Baz Luhrmann making an Elvis movie seems like either a match made in heaven or a case of sensory overload, as two figures known for their extravagant theatricality merge to create something that, whether you end up liking it or not, you can’t look away from. 2022’s Elvis is indeed an overlong and exhausting ride that hits a lot of the familiar beats, but it’s also an incredibly immersive and audacious piece of cinema that delivers the spectacle and energy of a live rock concert.

Literally as soon as the movie starts, before we are even out of the opening studio logos, this is undeniably a Baz Luhrmann film and it only ramps up from the there. Its opening moments are a little disorienting, not only because it moves so fast and jumps around in time a bunch, but because the visuals themselves make you feel like you’re at one of the many carnivals Elvis plays at in his formative years. Whilst the story eventually settles into a more linear narrative that takes us from Elvis’ early years living in poverty to his vice-addled flop era performing in Las Vegas, the pacing and visual flair doesn’t slow down as much. The whole first half has the frenetic energy of a movie trailer blown up to feature-length, especially in its numerous montage sequences, before slowing down more in the second. However, this speed feels deliberate in how it mirrors Elvis’ fame and state-of-mind, giving you first the intoxicating rush of seeing him perform at his height and then crashing down as Elvis’ career goes off the rails. That’s not to say there’s no substance or downtime in the film, and it’s these moments of introspection that both makes all the glitz mean something and stops the whole enterprise from just being a three-hour music video.

On a skeletal level, Elvis is still a pretty standard rags-to-riches tale that you’ve seen in every music biopic, to the point where you could easily replace certain scenes with their parody equivalent in Walk Hard and some people might not even notice. Where it manages to overcome those tropes is not just in its sheer shownmanship, but in how it focuses more on the love-hate relationship between Presley and his manager Colonel Tom Parker. The Colonel himself narrates directly to the audience as he tries to rationalize his decisions, and most of the major narrative beats centre around Elvis either defying his controlling nature or falling prey to his influence.

Though the story is ultimately a love letter to Presley and doesn’t address some of the darker or unflattering aspects of his life (no, you don’t get to see him die on the toilet), it really emphasises that his downfall wasn’t just out of poor health choices or making a quick buck, but a more tragic situation of being stuck with a man who both made him who he is and trapped him in his grasp forever. As formulaic as it is under the hood, there’s a reason filmmakers keep going back to this structure and Luhrmann does a fantastic job of making this old banger seem like a new model. His directorial style just gives it an infectious charm that makes you feel like you’re right there in the audience watching The King do his thing, and for that reason alone it makes this a movie you need to see on the big screen with an enthusiastic crowd.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in ELVIS (2022, d. Baz Luhrmann)

Whilst stars such as Kurt Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Michael Shannon have played him over the years, casting Elvis Presley should be approached with the same principle as casting Superman: if you cast a movie star as Superman, the audience just sees that movie star in a Superman costume, but if you cast an unknown, they see only Superman. Austin Butler is by no means a complete stranger picked off the street, but he’s far from the obvious choice and has never even led a major film before. That might quickly change after this though, because Butler delivers a tour de force performance as he completely transforms himself into the King of Rock and Roll. Presley is such a theatrical character that it’s hard to take him completely seriously, but Butler strikes the right balance between being authentic and going over the top, which is especially impressive when you remember who’s directing him. Even the distinctive honky tonk voice, whilst perhaps worth a chuckle at first, eventually just becomes a natural part of his performance. Whether it’s worthy of awards consideration yet is too early to call, but undoubtedly this movie alone is a guaranteed star maker for Butler.

The role that will likely divide more audience is Tom Hanks’ turn as Colonel Tom Parker, whose characterisation here I can only describe as “imagine if Jim Broadbent’s character from Moulin Rouge! had a love child with a hillbilly demon”. He gets pretty much equal screen time with Butler and is rarely far from him, with him being portrayed as a Faustian figure constantly looming over Presley and somehow luring him back every time he thinks their partnership is over. Hanks certainly throws himself into the role with gusto, adopting the strange Dutch-meets-Southern drawl and lumbering around under heavy make-up, but it’s absolutely a highly exaggerated performance by even Luhrmann’s standards, and yet I’m not sure if the movie would work as well if it were toned down. This is an exaggerated Hollywood retelling after all, so it therefore needs a villain, and despite rarely getting such opportunities Hanks can relish a good sinister turn.

The rest of the supporting cast is certainly jam-packed, with some pretty major stars like Kodi Smit-McPhee and Dacre Montgomery in roles that come and go in what feels like five minutes. Helen Thomson certainly shines the most in her brief time as Elvis’ beleaguered mother Gladys, whilst Richard Roxburgh gives a rare understated turn as his father Vernon. Olivia DeJonge certainly throws herself into the role of Priscilla Presley, to the point I didn’t even recognise her until the credits, but the character seems like a bit of an afterthought and devolves into yet another biopic trope character by the end. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is also pretty good as fellow musical pioneer B.B. King, but he’s only in a handful of scenes, which is especially egregious as he’s the only major Black character in a movie about a guy who owes so much of his career to African-American culture. In the grand scheme of things though, this is a story about Elvis and the Colonel, and so it’s only natural those two take up so much of the stage in such a decade-spanning chronicle.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker in ELVIS (2022, d. Baz Luhrmann)

If I had to take a guess on a word Baz Luhrmann doesn’t know the meaning of, it would be “subtlety”, because every single one of his movies lack any of it and Elvis is no exception. The visual presentation hits you like a tonne of bricks from the word go, sweeping you off into its technicolour dreamlike presentation and not letting you go until the credits roll. The editing is simply relentless, especially during its concert scenes as we cut between Presley’s on-stage antics and the crowd going quite literally mad for him, but never in a way that feels incomprehensible or random; it is quite deliberately strenuous. The presentation is just awash in bright lights and spinning cameras abound, turning the movie into a figurative roller coaster, and all of the set and costume work is just to die for.

The montage sequences are perhaps relied on a little too frequently, but they keep the energy of the story up and they’ve done a fantastic job of compositing Butler into old archival footage (but there are times when you can see they haven’t bother for shots that don’t show Elvis’ face). Of course for a movie about a musician, you’d expect a stellar music experience and Elvis certainly delivers on all the hits and more, and Butler even gets a chance to show off his own singing ability for a few select songs. Luhrmann also loves himself a bit of anachronistic clashing and inserts modern songs onto the soundtrack, though all of them sample or are outright covers of Elvis songs, so there is at least a theme to it rather than just slapping a Jay-Z song on The Great Gatsby. Still, it is kind of weird to be leaving the cinema as Eminem raps over the credits. What is this? Venom?

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Helen Thomson as Gladys Presley in ELVIS (2022, d. Baz Luhrmann)

Elvis isn’t going to please those looking for a more nuanced take on the legend or something that bucks the formula of the musician biopic, but as a crowd-pleasing epic it hits every note like a pro. It’s probably the closest anyone these days can get to seeing the man himself play live, and for fans it’s an absolute must-see in cinemas. As much as I’m personally tired of the current wave of these movies post-Bohemian Rhapsody (with the exception of Rocketman, which this rivals closely for me), I can forgive a lot of workmanlike screenwriting when there’s so much passion and creativity up on the screen, and on that level Baz Luhrmann doesn’t disappoint. The whole experience may have left me feeling like I’d run a marathon, but it’s a ride I’d gladly take again in the right circumstances. More than anything else though, I think The King would be proud, because this matches his own standards of showmanship.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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