Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in an overwhelming and energetic reimagining of the life of a defining musical legend
Who is Elvis Presley? It’s a question asked but never quite answered in Baz Luhrmann's latest cinematic reinvention, Elvis, a glitzy biopic in which the gaudy, divisive director sets out to seemingly out Luhrmann even himself, using the towering musical figure as a springboard to blow the screen off its hinges to exhausting but occasionally inspired effect. It is a lot. But Elvis was a lot. Baz Luhrmann has always been a lot. What did we expect?
For all the script skirts around Elvis as a complex individual in his own right, the film argues for the “vibe” of the man and the fever he inspired as opposed to any in-depth dissection of his mind or motives. We witness much of what happened through the eyes of one Colonel Tom Parker, the notorious and controversial music manager who “made” Elvis (and took 50 percent of the profits for his efforts). He's played by Tom Hanks in a deranged, cartoony, and maybe even terrible caricature of a performance – but the kind that is frequently impossible to look away from.
Austin Butler, no newcomer to the industry though likely known to very few, is highly credible in the titular role and an often luminous star presence. Face like a 50s movie star, he makes a convincing King of Rock and Roll – and, in early sequences, provides his own vocals to genuinely impressive ends. But this is a Luhrmann film and so no performance is truly safe: Butler is, more often than not, swallowed by the spectacle and it's difficult not to ponder what he might have done with just a few moments away from the glitter and flashing lights.
This being an Elvis film, hope is pinned on the musical sequences – and for the most part, Luhrmann pulls them off with a sense of showmanship that occasionally feels miraculous, even if he can't resist tinkering and remixing the classics. Elvis' bravado sequence is “Unchained Melody,” a climax to end all climaxes, which could well be the thing to make the singer matter in the minds of the unfamiliar (or have them, at the very least, looking up the original performance on YouTube).
Like a man who has newly discovered the medium, Luhrmann leans into every cinematic technique at his disposal, implementing split screens, spinning newspaper headlines, and dissolves that already felt dated in the 90s, all the while delivering a film with the air of an endless, sweaty montage. The pacing becomes a problem; there was no need for this to be almost three hours in length. But maybe excess is the point in itself: the movie, packed to the hilt, eventually weighs down on the viewer much like Elvis' career weighed down on him.
The fairytale comes with a knowing sense that liberties have been taken, historical accuracy eschewed to better fit with its director's maximalist vision of a man he has called “the original superhero.” The musical biopic that follows the life of an artist from cradle to grave, cookie cutter and respectable in approach, often makes for some of the dullest, least memorable of cinematic experiences – sipped down like a glass of water. Say what you will about Elvis, but I doubt it's meant for the same fate.
Elvis is now released in UK cinemas.Where to watch