Baz Luhrmann is always the first name that comes to mind when talking about my favourite directors - whether watching 'Strictly Ballroom' on free to air, actually caring in English because of my love for 'Romeo + Juliet', the gigantic reinvention of the movie musical that is the masterpiece 'Moulin Rouge!', making 'The Great Gatsby' my personality trait at age 16, and even the flaws in the tourism marketing tie-in for 'Australia' is interesting to unpack. Luhrmann's films are always something to talk about - and considering his slim filmography, it makes a new release even more special. Baz is back, and for the first time his work is focusing on a fully non-fictional story, dissecting the life of Elvis.
Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood', 'The Post') is on the look for a new act to take the world by storm when he runs into a young Elvis Presley (Austin Butler, 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood', 'Aliens in the Attic'). Together, they put Presley on the map with his new dancing inspired by the African American community. The film takes us through the highs and lows of Presley’s life from his movies to the Comeback special, his relationship with Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge, 'Better Watch Out', 'The Visit') and his Vegas residency.
The first time we see Elvis performing, doing his famous pelvic thirst as women of all ages begin to scream, the Colonel says, "I watched that skinny boy turn into a superhero". As Elvis begins to rise, the Colonel produces hundreds of different merchandise items including "I Love Elvis" and "I Hate Elvis" pins, explaining that the public is going to hate regardless whether they capitalise on it or not. This idea of being a money-making superhero is the grand idea of this biopic and how this story differs from others, it’s what that can do to only the artist but the person who made them that way.
The film isn’t interested as Elvis as a person. It sees him as a product, hence the film's narrator is the Colonel, the one who made him the merchandise giant, the film star, the King. The film rarely showcases his discography; the only complete song we hear is in the film’s final performance. We also see an idea from 'The Great Gatsby' here with the song 'Vegas' by Doja Cat being used in place of Elvis' 'Hound Dog'. This really works and it excited me when it appeared in the actual film, but these moments happen rarely. There is another moment where Elvis is singing to the camera as names of his bands appear, similar to a TV theme song style, but again these moments are fleeting. The film surprisingly strays away from musical moments and it really could have befitted from more of them, similarly to 'Rocketman'.
'Elvis' doesn’t completely live up to the promise, though it does start with an extremely strong opening. It has all the Lurhmann flare, but by the middle loses steam and never really bounces back.
It’s pretty common knowledge that 'Hound Dog' was actually "borrowed" from African American artist Big Mama Thornton. A lot of Elvis' performance styles originated from African American performances as he was one of the only white children in a poor southern community. The film takes the approach that this was looked on as a cool thing he is doing, but his relationship with that community was much more complex than what the film showcases.
'Elvis' doesn’t completely live up to the promise, though it does start with an extremely strong opening. It has all the Lurhmann flare, but by the middle loses steam and never really bounces back. Butler is the true selling point here, which might be a first for a Lurhmann production; performances over visuals. In some scenes it's uncanny just how much he truly embodies him from the look, the voice, the moment - it could be one of the most transformative roles in any biopic. It’s a career-defining performance.
It feels like two films are battling each other for dominance. The beginning and end are quintessentially visual Lurhmann goodness, while the middle falls more into generic biopic territory. Baz Lurhmann’s 'Elvis' is one those films that toes the line, and for that reason I find it terribly interesting. You have all of these different ideas coming together - some soar, some fail, but as a whole it’s not quite all there.
In 2022, who is 'Elvis' for? As a famous musician he has a strong pop culture relevancy, with his face and music still widely circulated; go to any Dollar Store and I’m sure you’ll find his face on any canvas bags right next to the Marylin Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. As a human being, there is little interest left in who he is, which makes a biopic based on Presley interesting, but this one never fully gels together. More than any other biopic, this will come down to your connection with him. Die-hards are going to swoon over how accurate Butler's performance is, but for those less-informed this only feels like a jumping-off point to learn about him, not the complete story.