***1/2 out of ****
(for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking)
Released: June 24, 2022
Runtime: 159 minutes
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Dacre Montgomery, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
With Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann not only blows the doors off what a biopic can be, a genre that is often stale and predictable. He also pulls off a miraculous paradox: gratuitously brandishing stylistic excess to reveal the intimate heart of an iconic yet enigmatic figure.
And, more broadly, it’s difficult to recall a movie that has more effectively captured the hysteria of what it’s like to experience a groundbreaking, culture-changing phenomenon. Of the recent spate of Rock-Doc dramas (Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, et al), Elvis is easily the best.
Elvis is the perfect marriage of filmmaker and subject, and it marks Lurhmann’s best work since Moulin Rouge. It plays like an adrenaline shot to the chest (or, at times, even a line of coke straight up the nasal cavity), a glitzy fever dream spectacle about the King of Rock & Roll. Luhrmann is such a wild card, but when he delivers the results are not only spectacular but meaningful.
Elvis isn’t a generic “rise, fall, redeem” behind-the-music melodrama; it’s an empathetic morality tale told in operatic Shakespearean strokes. Yes, Luhrmann celebrates Presley and his genius but, ultimately, Elvis is a tragedy, one in which the generational talent from Tupelo, Mississippi fulfills his historic potential but at the cost of his own soul.
The figurative angel and devil on Presley’s shoulders are, respectively, his mother Gladys and manager Col. Tom Parker. Positioning those two real-life people into archetypal roles helps elevate the story to something closer to myth than memoir, yet neither person is reduced to being simplistic devices.
That’s especially true for Tom Hanks’ mesmerizing turn as Parker. Though initial glimpses of his transformation in preview trailers seemed bizarre, even silly (from the fat suit prosthetics to the quirky Dutch accent), Hanks’s actual performance is perfectly calibrated to Luhrmann’s gonzo, visceral vision. Every risk that Hanks takes pays off. (I dare say it’s one of the more impressive accomplishments of his career.)
Indeed, it’s Parker – an eccentric, goofy, yet hypnotizing Svengali – who actually tells the story here, and that framing is a compelling conceit. Even as Parker defends his own actions, Lurhmann doesn’t use him as an unreliable narrator, instead allowing Parker to spin his justifications in a way that actually reveals the truth rather than obscure it.
Nevertheless, Parker is savvy enough (and delivers enough results) that his Machievellian tactics work. He’s the personification of the double-edged sword. Elvis wasn’t stupid, he just trusted the wrong person. This movie helps make sense of why Elvis did, even when his gut warned him otherwise.
Likewise, Gladys isn’t merely a hillbilly yokel with a knee-jerk fear of fame. She wants her son to realize his potential, but not to compromise who he is and what he values in the process. She is her son’s conscience, and she knows him better than he even knows himself. When she passes, so does Elvis’s ability to stay moored to who he is. It’s when he begins to lose himself.
Luhrmann posits key historical markers as fascinating junctures where, just for a moment, Elvis finds himself again (his comeback Christmas special being one, which is explored at fascinating length in the film’s second half, as well as his first stint in Vegas), but these hopeful rebirths ultimately serve to augment the tragedy, not dilute it, reminding us of his genius and what could’ve been only to see it corrupted and destroyed by Parker’s schemes and Elvis’s own penchant for self-destruction.
Yet for all the style, flash, and liberties taken here – from a first act that plays almost like a superhero origin story, to the important touchstones that defined Elvis as an artist and a man – Luhrmann’s bio-opus comes off as an honest assessment of who Elvis Presley was.
That starts with how meaningful and genuine his influences were to him. Presley was not a cheap appropriater. From black rhythm & blues to gospel and country, he was a humble yet electric steward who fused the virtues and vices of both.
It’s all fueled by a revelatory breakthrough from Austin Butler. Yes, he masters Presley’s physical and vocal affectations, capturing the King’s charisma and prowess, but that’s just the foundation of what Butler creates, not the ceiling. Presley’s tortured innocence is also just as credible, as strong as he is fragile, all born of Butler’s impassioned empathy, not some unhinged method technique.
Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley (Elvis’s wife and daughter) gave a tearful endorsement of the film before it opened, praising Luhrmann for the veracity he rendered even in the midst of his creative indulgences. While such praise can often seem like perfunctory marketing spin or cynical studio exploitation, I believe them. Elvis feels authoritative. Through it, Luhrmann not only shows us the Elvis that Priscilla knew and loved; this is the Elvis she believed in. It’s also the Elvis she lost, even before he died.