Musically-inclined director Baz Lurhmann cannot be criticized for his Elvis biopic containing "a little less conversation, a little more action."
"Elvis" is a sprawling, swirling, glitzy and glamorous remembrance of the King. It ends up being so fast-paced that it comes across as hollow, but that's not to say there isn't a lot to like about it. Carrying the lyrics to that aforementioned song like a motto for the film, Luhrmann infuses his story of Elvis Presley with "a little more bite and a little less bark, a little less fight and a little more spark."
It's a bit of a spectacle, not quite life-changing but larger-than-life...a whirlwind of flashing lights, gaudy costumes and shaking hips.
In other words, it's exactly what "Elvis" would have wanted it to be.
Unlike several recent biopics that seem to just focus on a particular time period or slice of life of its subject, "Elvis" looks to jam it all in there. At nearly three hours, it never feels that long, and it's a bit of a miracle that Luhrmann's high-flying act is able to sustain its energy level for such a period of time. This story is right in his wheelhouse after all, coming from the Oscar-nominated director of other flashy visually-and-audibly wondrous films like "Strictly Ballroom," "The Great Gatsby," "Romeo + Juliet," "Australia" and of course, "Moulin Rouge!"
The biggest achievement the film claims is having found an incredible young and relatively unknown actor, Austin Butler, to play the titular role. For a man, Elvis Presley, who has been imitated and caricatured perhaps more than any other living being in the history of the world, Butler is a believable, deeply-committed hunk-a, hunk-a burnin' Elvis Presley. They smartly use Presley's singing-voice with Butler lip-syncing the words, but Butler impressively channels his performance to be much more than just a Vegas-style impression.
Going with a mostly unknown actor as Elvis was important to Luhrmann, as not to distract away from Elvis's persona. That becomes very questionable reasoning then, to discover that Tom Hanks - one of the most recognizable faces and voices in Hollywood - is cast in the film as the shyster "Colonel" Tom Parker, the man who "discovered" Elvis, managed him, and went on to bleed him dry both financially and literally. Some say that Tom Parker is the man responsible for Elvis's untimely death from a drug-overdose at the age of 42.
Luhrmann is sure to squeeze in most details of Elvis's life, from his youth to his "fat Elvis" days headlining at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Maybe it's symbolic that he wedges Tom Parker's story into Elvis's, as most certainly the real Parker wedged his way into Elvis's life and career. The movie flies so fast that many eras and important periods of Presley's life feel like flashes before our eyes. On more than a few occasions, the approach works: Elvis's iconic TV appearance, for example, and the sexual awakening of the many girls (and boys) that experienced his thrusting pelvis and suggestive dance moves for the very first time, is one of the best sequences of the film and underscores why Luhrmann was uniquely qualified and trusted with this movie. But things whiz by so fast, that when the movie does need to take its necessary breaths, it feels abrupt and unearned.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is that we never quite learn or understand much about Elvis himself, or more specifically, what kept him loyal to Colonel Tom. It's obvious why Colonel Tom would have wanted to leach on to Elvis, but we never really get under the surface of what made Elvis tick. This is a big problem, considering that the entire film chooses to place the Elvis/Colonel Tom relationship front-and-center. I'm not sure I liked the narration device either, with the entire story seemingly being told from Colonel Tom's perspective. "Was or wasn't Colonel Tom the villain?" is way less interesting to me than finding out what drove Elvis to be Elvis. Another example is the very first time we meet Elvis in the movie, he just LOOKS different, wearing eye makeup and wearing his clothes differently. Why did he do that? I would have liked to have known.
That missing anchor in the center is really what deflates "Elvis" as a story. But as a movie, there are some riveting visuals, some fantastic musical numbers. And you can't quite ever peel your eyes away from Austin Butler. He's a stand-out, break-out star...and even with the limitations of the script, you just feel like he could have done more...he could have pulled off "deeper" if given the chance.
In today's world full of Lady Gagas and whatnot, will the younger generations really "get" how big, and how influential Elvis Presley really was? If they watch "Elvis," they may understand that he was a singular talent, but they may never understand what made him tick. Maybe none of us ever will, and that's what makes him such an elusive icon.
Genre: Biography, Drama, Music.
Run Time: 2 hours 39 minutes.
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Olivia DeJonge, Dacre Montgomery, Luke Bracey, David Wenham.
Co-Written and Directed by Baz Luhrmann ("The Great Gatsby," "Australia," "Moulin Rouge!" "Romeo + Juliet," "Strictly Ballroom").
"Elvis" is in theaters on Friday, June 24th, 2022.
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