Elvis is currently available on HBO Max, bringing with it an explosion of the King’s music and the excess of an enormous Baz Luhrmann film. I advise going into the movie knowing that, for better or worse, the movie is a blur because of how chaotic Elvis Presley’s life was. Elvis is a psychedelic fever dream of Presley’s formative years, meteoric rise to fame, scandal, and ultimate demise. We see the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s soaring highs, hard-hitting lows, and undoubtedly memorable moments through the eyes of his scheming manager Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks).
It’s undeniable that Elvis is an engaging film, complete with all the sparkle and glamour you’d anticipate from a Presley biography, but it leans more toward being a tribute to director Baz Luhrmann’s visual aesthetic than to the King. Luhrmann’s particular flavor of visual excess and filmmaking extravagance familiar from 2013’s The Great Gatsby and 2001’s Moulin Rouge overpower some of Elvis’ life’s poignant and painful moments. But if you can get past the dizziness and distraction of Luhrmann’s more outlandish choices, there is a lot to love about the film.
White-hot star-in-the-making Austin Butler gives a tour de force performance as Elvis, his vocals blending with the King’s to create a multilayered transition from the 1950s to Elvis’ final years. Given how many Elvis impersonators there are in the world, Butler’s ability to take on the role without falling into a stereotype is admirable as is his commitment to nailing Presley’s iconic moves and The Voice. There have been rumors that the actor’s decision to utilize method acting for the full two years of filming has truly had an impact on his everyday speech, but let’s be honest: If that’s the worst thing that method acting brings out in him, so be it.
The supporting cast delivered mixed performances, with Australian Olivia DeJonge striking out as a frustratingly underused Priscilla Presley. Regulars for Luhrmann, David Wenham, and Richard Roxburgh, are strong as always, but Tom Hanks’ inconsistent depiction of Colonel Tom Parker caught me off guard. While the prosthetics do most of the work, the uneven accent and cartoon presence make it difficult to believe that we’re not seeing Tom Hanks wearing a plastic nose. It’s difficult for me to accept Hanks is unquestionably the poorest member of the cast as a lifelong supporter.
However, in the end, my major complaint is that the bloated running length messed with the pacing, with the final 40 minutes seeming to go on for twice as long as the first. Many aspects of Elvis’ life are left out in favor of a more prismatic collage, which is acceptable but sometimes feels like an excuse to display all the legendary Elvis costumes and songs. But if you can’t help but fall in love with everything Elvis, you can be sure that there are plenty of iconic images, clothes smolder, and songs to look back on. You can’t dispute that Priscilla herself praised Luhrmann and Butler and claimed the movie moved her to tears, which is an incredible recommendation.