Review: Elvis

By Christian DiMartino

There two kinds of people in this world: the people who utterly despise the work of Baz Luhrmann, and those who, well, just kind of dig his vibe. I fall into the latter camp, I confess, but wouldn’t deny that his haters might be justified in their hatred. His films are flashy, over the top, and in your face (not to mention, proud of it). They are more often than not a case of style over substance, yet my my, what style. What can I say? I like pretty things, and each of his movies (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge, etc.) are dressed to the nines. Even as an admirer, there is no denying that going into Luhrmann’s Elvis, his first film in 9 years, there was skepticism. Because Luhrmann is Luhrmann, and I hoped to God that he wouldn’t make a mockery of Elvis Presley.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is, indeed, “Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.” This is a Luhrmann joint, through and through, and his detractors may very well loathe this film as well, because from beginning to end, this is a journey of excess. Yet even as a fan, of the sorts, I won’t lie that his style has perhaps never been put to better use. Elvis Presley is an almost mythic figure; the kind of artist whose legacy has lived on through his music but also through merchandise, impersonators, etc. Everyone knows who he is, even if you’ve never heard a single syllable of his music. His persona is, in its own way, larger than life.

Which is why Luhrmann is just about the best guy for the job. Thinking back on recent music biopics, I gotta say, a good chunk of them feel by-the-numbers. I genuinely didn’t enjoy the 4 time Academy Award winning Bohemian Rhapsody (sigh) because despite a fine (and that’s about all) performance from Rami Malek, the movie was lame, tame, entertaining, but devoid of personality and as generic of a biopic as you can get. Elvis anything but matches that description. Whether you love it (as I pretty much did) or hate it, Luhrmann is putting it all on the screen. Elvis is flashy and in your face, yet it didn’t come across as obnoxious. If anything, it really feels like at every turn, it’s a film that is tapping into The King’s grandiose, energetic spirit. It’s also a film that loves and respects Elvis, in the way I hoped it would.

So I’ll say, if you’ve ever seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, it’s pretty hard to un-see it when approaching this type of movie. Because that film attacked every cliche of the genre in such a way that anyone daring to make another one would have to do so at their own peril. Of course, some of the cliches are there, but also some notable ones are absent. Using a framework similar to Amadeus (which was left unscathed by Walk Hard), Elvis is told from the eyes of Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, in a performance that we will get to later), Elvis’ manager who tells us that he’s been considered Elvis’ killer. He claims that he was Elvis’ creator. Both of which, in their way, is true.

Parker, whose background is mysterious, spots Elvis (Austin Butler) on stage one evening and, like anyone with eyes and ears, is drawn into his orbit. The women swoon over him and his movements, and the guy has a great set of pipes. Pretty much sold on his magnetism, Parker decides to take him on, and soon we witness Elvis’ rise to fame, and his run-ins with the law. The uptight squares in the 50’s thought that his hip gyrations were offensive. Again, squares. We also witness his inspiration and collaboration from African American artists such as B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), his romance with Priscilla (Olivia Dejonge), his movie career, and… essentially his whole life.

It should be noted that Elvis is a little under 2 hours and 40 minutes. Will you feel the length? Yeah, a little. Yet I found myself pretty much caught up in it to where it didn’t feel like time was passing slowly or anything. The runtime is also earned because Luhrmann’s film is pretty ambitious. Yet its ambition might come with a reservation. That being that maybe this isn’t quite the fully fleshed Elvis biopic you’re wanting. Certain chapters of his life are sort of “yada-yada’d” and maybe if you’re an Elvis-ologist, that might deter you. What also might deter you is the occasional mix of modern pop with Elvis (which bizarrely worked, for my money). Yet I see the film as more of a celebration of his career than a biopic, with of course its biopic elements. What surprised me is that, despite the occasional yada yada, I did find the film ultimately effective.

You know what else is effective? Austin Butler. This is an incredible performance. My judgment of this kind of performance varies. I prefer that you sing, but if the acting outside of the music numbers is great then so be it. Arguably the best is Val Kilmer’s performance in The Doors (who sang but didn’t get a nomination, sheesh), but I’m also a huge fan of Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It? Butler’s performance here is really a knockout. Somewhere at about the 40 minute mark I forgot I was watching a performance. What’s tricky is that a role like this is either going to come across as either an impersonation or an embodiment, and Butler’s turns out to be both, but it’s utterly marvelous. I bought into every ounce of what he was doing here. Because obviously the movements during the performances are incredible, but also I genuinely believed that Elvis’ voice was coming from his mouth, even when I knew it was trickery. Guys, if Rami Malek can win an Oscar for sporting prosthetic teeth, I think we can throw Butler into this mix too. This is a full-blooded performance, and a great one.

Now… Tom Hanks. Hmm. I think just about everyone has deemed this performance a misfire, which is strange because we can all essentially agree that he’s a wonderful angel who can do no wrong. He’s been receiving some of his worst reviews since The Bonfire of the Vanities here and, well… you’re not wrong. But… I kind of enjoyed it. Covered in make-up, chewing up scenery with a kooky, cartoonish accent in what is also perhaps a kooky, cartoonish performance, I enjoyed what he was doing here simply because I got the vibe that he was having a blast. Hanks has been playing the hero in about 90% of every movie he’s been in for the last 30 years or so, and with good reason. He’s great at it. Yet I’m flexible and I just kind of had fun with watching him sink his teeth in what is a goofy, over-the-top role, in a pretty over-the-top movie.

I can’t fully gauge how people are going to respond to this film. From where I’m sitting, Elvis is the ultimate summation of Luhrmann’s powers. Everything that he’s capable of doing, either successfully or not, is on display in this film and it really worked for me. This film is gorgeous, from its cinematography to its nutty editing, but in particular its costume and production design, compliments of Luhrmann’s wife and collaborator, 4 time Oscar winner Catherine Martin. This movie was filmed in Australia. How the hell was this done? Don’t know, but wowsers. I really dug this movie, from its look to its performances to its musical numbers, where you’ll feel all shook up, along with your temperature rising. By the time it reached its finale, I swooned like a lady at one of his concerts. Who wouldn’t? Elvis is a rollicking reminder that Elvis Presley is the s**t, but more important, The King. Thank you, thank you very much.


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