Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis was given an appropriate amount of hype, considering it tells the story of the legendary Elvis Presley. A modern epic chronicling the meteoric rise, troubled years, and eventual death of Presley, Elvis was always going to be a big deal. A director like Luhrmann was an obvious choice, especially after the glitzy aesthetic of The Great Gatsby.
Austin Butler stars as Elvis‘ titular character, and he’s an undeniable draw. His ability to capture the physical mannerisms, speech patterns, and effortless cool of Presley makes him absolutely electrifying in the role, and his commitment to singing as many Elvis songs as possible for the soundtrack is almost as commendable. Butler’s performance is excellent, as he really taps into the genuine tragedy of Elvis, although there are times where Luhrmann’s own flashiness creeps in and overshadows the rawness of Butler’s work.
Tom Hanks also stars as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ shady manager and the de facto villain of the film. Hanks isn’t known for his ability to effectively portray villains, but the role of Parker is carefully written as to communicate the sheer depth of his manipulation. This allows Hanks to tap into some of his naturally sympathetic nature, allowing the true story behind the film to color his performance with Parker’s real-life villainy. By allowing Hanks to use his own charm to sway Butler’s Elvis on-screen, Elvis brilliantly uses its two lead actors.
Another standout is Elvis‘ visuals. Butler looks excellent as Presley, but this goes right down to the finer details. Characters’ clothes, cars, and homes all feel genuine, delivering a slice of Americana that feels just right for Elvis’ story, and makes the film feel as though it’s been lifted straight out of the history books. The commitment to replicating Elvis Presley’s iconic wardrobe as carefully as possible is staggering, and it adds to the mysticism of the man himself, elevating Butler’s own performance in the process.
However, despite its powerful strengths, Elvis is far from a perfect film. Its biggest flaw is its troubled pacing, which comes as the inevitable result of cramming decades worth of history into a single film. It’s a shame, but certain aspects of Presley’s life felt rushed through, whereas others were lingered on. Though this isn’t necessarily awful on its own, the lack of any on screen indicators of dates make the film’s history harder to follow, and this in turn leads to that strange sensation only conjured by the biopic: the dilution of time and history that makes it difficult to tell exactly what decade you’re looking at.
In this, Elvis delivers moments of confusion, but they are quickly lost in its high points. Luhrmann’s recreation of iconic moments of Elvis’ life and Butler’s sweaty, smouldering performance are genuinely mesmerizing, and that’s enough to make the film’s flaws melt away. In that sense, Elvis captures the essence of the man himself; far from perfect, but dazzlingly showy and hypnotic in a way that prevents you from truly seeing its weaknesses. Instead, Elvis is a moving and deeply interesting look into Presley’s life and death, ending with a touching tribute to the man himself.
Elvis is a film that had an impossible hurdle to clear, because Elvis Presley is a modern legend, and telling his story is no mean feat. Though it may not have been carried off without a single hitch, Elvis is an excellent biopic that really allows audiences to sink their teeth into Presley’s story. There’s some shameless rewriting of history and the glossing over of some of the more unpleasant parts of Presley’s life and character, but Elvis is a truly glorious film that does justice to the legend of Elvis Presley.
Summary: What Elvis may lack in consistent pacing, it more than makes up for in its visual and musical splendor and in Austin Butler’s breathtakingly hypnotic performance.
Highlight: Butler singing “If I Can Dream” as part of the comeback special was genuinely transformative, and the final scene transitioning from Butler to actual footage of Presley’s final performance was a brilliant touch that ended the film on an emotional note.