Elvis Review: Luhrmann’s best brings the King’s story to life
Director Baz Luhrmann has made quite a career crafting films with a distinctively colorful, flashy, and glossy look like The Great Gatsby, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge. His latest film, Elvis, is easily a strong culmination and evolution of his vision with the visual treat and surprisingly emotional story he provides.
The film is not only a personal look at Elvis Presley’s (Austin Butler) rise in the entertainment industry, but also his relationship with his longtime manage Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), where Parker often controlled Elvis’ personal and professional life. Elvis’ on-stage persona and Luhrmann’s colorful and glitzy vision were truly a match made to be. Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker don’t just recreate the iconic outfits Elvis would wear on-stage or sprinkle some glitz and glam here and there. Instead, they fully recreate the awe-striking atmosphere and stage presence that Elvis had in his performing and keep that vision throughout every part of the film. Whether viewers are seeing one of Elvis’ many breathtaking Vegas shows or simply seeing him live at the famous Graceland, Elvis evokes that larger than life feel that lives up to the legacy of the King of Rock & Roll.
Luhrmann utilizes a lot of the energy he builds through the atmosphere well in making certain story beats feel just as epic. When looking at how Elvis was inspired by Black rhythm and blues artists and gospel music, the sound and visuals really create this immersive atmosphere that makes you feel exactly what Elvis is feeling. Even as Elvis tries to reclaim his image and take control of his music, these moments feel more empowering because of how Luhrmann weaves emotion and story throughout the scenery and builds this presence that’s impactful. Lurhmann even uses some comic book storytelling for Elvis’ love of Shazam and it’s one of the many ways that his visionary storytelling constantly elevates Elvis’ immersive viewing experience.
Admittedly, Lurhmann’s vision can complicates things, especially in the film’s opening. With Parker acting as a narrator looking back on Elvis’ rise and fall, it’s no wonder that Luhrmann tries to create a visual downward spiral to go with it, but it makes the opening a mess story wise. The visuals reflecting Parker’s gambling addiction that would eventually sink both him and Elvis are mesmerizing, but there’s so much jumping around it’s tough to figure out when things are really starting. Even though the visuals and sheer aesthetics have you hooked from the start, you feel you’re getting punched with information that’s tough to decipher and struggles to leave an impact. It’s honestly even tough to feel like you should even really trust Parker as a narrator since you know that he’s truly the villain of this story regardless of what he might say.
However, the struggles of the opening do dissipate rather quickly as Elvis’ personal story takes more centerstage and drives the film because of the two incredibly strong lead performances. It’s rare to see Hanks in a villain role and it’s what makes it a total treat to see him as Parker. Every time he’s on-screen he only becomes more nefarious and it’s surprisingly captivating to see how Parker sided with racism and backlash to keep Elvis under his thumb. He even used Elvis’ naivety and dreams to inject himself deeper into his inner circle to not only have a tighter grip on his financial and personal life, but also make it tougher for Elvis to get rid of him when he finally learns the truth. Parker might say he’s not the villain of this story, but you’ll absolutely despise him and be shocked by his wickedness that’s elevated through Hanks’ performance.
Butler is the true star of Elvis though with one of the most engaging breakout performances of the year that simply can’t be missed. His stage presence absolutely matches everything that Elvis brought, and Butler is at his most compelling when he showcases Elvis’ more personable mindset. The fame and stage antics are fun and all, but it’s when Elvis is talking about the impact he wants to have and how he wants to reclaim his image that makes Butler’s performance so connective. Butler brings emotion that makes it easy to connect to Elvis as a person and really feel like you’re seeing an unseen side of him. Especially with knowing what Parker is doing to him behind the scenes, you just can’t help but fall for Butler as Elvis and he makes the more empowering parts of Elvis’ personal journey as an artist immensely heartfelt.
The film, as a whole, really captures Elvis well in both his career and personal life. It doesn’t touch on every single aspect of Elvis’ life, but the primary focus on his dysfunctional dynamic with Parker acts as this perfect throughline narrative to touch on parts of Elvis’ life where his personal and professional lives blended. Elvis’ close relationship with the Black community and specifically B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is very intriguing given the tension and racial discrimination that was occurring at this time. The counterculture that was mostly created because of him is totally fascinating because it works in expanding the more personal side of his character. Plus, his relationship with his wife Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) is made incredibly heartwarming because of how it brings him out of his shell and keeps him grounded. It’s what makes it a true tragedy to see him fall in the later parts of his career. Parker’s continual grasp over Elvis’ life is undeniably crushing and although the note things end on is incredibly depressing, Luhrmann leaves things feeling triumphant by establishing the impact and legacy that Elvis left as both an artist and a person through his music.
Luhrmann’s vision might get ahead of itself at the start, but once Elvis gets going it completely captivates you through its immersive atmosphere, incredible performances, and surprisingly touching personal narrative. It very well might be Luhrmann’s best film and showcases possibly THE breakout performance of the year from Butler.