Review: Elvis

This week I went to see Elvis, the new film from Australian director Baz Luhrmann. Known for his interpretation of Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby amongst other things. This is a biopic of the King Of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley. I’d heard lots of praise for the film and with such a big story to tell, it’s fair to say my expectations were pretty high.

Luhrmann has a distinctive style for which he’s known. Fast cuts, vivid colours, constant movement and a certain dream-like quality. I had expected some of that but found the opening portion of the film hard to get into if I’m honest. It felt a little disorientating and relentless. Like being repeatedly hit over the head with a wet fish. Thankfully that did settle down, or perhaps I became used to it. Tom Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ famous manager, and he narrates the story as it jumps around between different time periods. I’m no expert but I already knew quite a bit about Elvis’ life going into this film, and I also knew a fair bit about the shady back story of his manager. I wondered how closely they would stick to the truth.

We begin with the first time the Colonel sees Elvis perform at the Louisiana Hayride. Previously a carnival huckster with a dark past, using dancing chickens to relieve people of their money. The colonel is instantly convinced this kid is the dancing chicken he’s been looking for all his life. He sets about gaining control of Elvis’ career, signing him up to a contract which gives the manager 50% of all the star’s future earnings. The Colonel has become something of a cautionary tale to young artists over the years and is widely considered to have exploited Elvis badly, something the film leans into pretty hard. He also wasn’t really called Colonel Tom Parker, this was a completely made up identity. He illegally immigrated to the US from Holland, where there is even suspicion he had been involved in a murder.

The Louisiana Hayride scene from early in the movie

It’s an interesting role for Hanks to take up because we rarely see him play a villain, or anything other than a clean cut nice guy. As his voice over tells us “I didn’t kill Elvis Presley”, you get the sense that this statement is going to be tested though. As the tale continues we see how the Colonel sent Presley into the army for national service to rehabilitate his image. Elvis’ gyrating hips and dance moves were widely condemned. Many establishment figures even claimed it was leading to the downfall of society and corruption of the youth in the late 1950s.

On his return from Europe the Colonel puts Elvis into a series or formulaic musical Hollywood movies which continued to be pumped out until the late 1960s. A large part of the film centres on the 1968 TV special which came to be known as the comeback special. With the Colonel expecting a Christmas themed show and a leather clad Elvis very much doing his own thing. Signing a protest song as the closing number instead.

The story continues with the Colonel basically tricking Elvis into a long term residency at The International in Las Vagas. The film asserts that this is to clear his own gambling debts and also maintain his vice-like grip over the star. A fact few would dispute. The Colonel certainly thwarted Elvis’ attempts to travel abroad and tour outside the US. Probably because he had no passport and didn’t want his illegal immigration status unearthed. While it plays fast and loose with the facts at times, I have to admit that overall the film does stick close to the accepted tale of Elvis’ life and ultimate premature death aged 42. So did the Colonel kill Elvis? The film doesn’t really come to a conclusion on that but you can be sure his constant pushing for more live shows, punishing schedule, control of Elvis every move, and use of “Dr Nick” to keep his star drugged up, all contributed to his death.

Austin Butler as Elvis (left) and Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker (right)

The film has that dreamy quality you would expect from Luhrmann but it goes too far with this for my taste. It feels a bit like a 3 hour music video at times with all the cutting, split screen and disorientating visuals. The first act feels like a fever dream. The acting is strong throughout and I have no doubt Austin Butler is a star of the future. His performance is electric and will probably earn him an Oscar nomination at the least. Tom Hanks is always pretty good but I was slightly disappointed the female characters in the story had very little to do. Priscilla (played by Olivia DeJonge) has very few lines and the only other female character of note is Elvis’ mother Gladys, who dies pretty early on. The music is good but the choice of hip-hop tunes as background in parts is strange for a period piece. It’s not your typical biopic but then perhaps this is fitting. Elvis wasn’t your typical singer and his life story is a big tale to tell.

Overall verdict: 4/5

Overall this film is very enjoyable despite it’s flaws. If you’re an Elvis aficionado you may need to leave some of that knowledge at the door and be prepared to accept some liberties taken with the narrative. Elvis’ life is a massive story and despite the long runtime this feels like it only scratches the surface in some areas. For me it got better the longer it went on and didn’t feel boring or slow at any point. So I have to give credit for that.

The stand out thing here is the incredible performance of Austin Butler in the lead role. His movement on stage and embodiment of Elvis is really something to see. I didn’t know anything about him beforehand but I will certainly be looking out for what he does next. The supporting cast are also good and if you like Baz Luhrmann’s style you will be in heaven. It was not only directed but also written and produced by Luhrmann. So this is clearly all his perspective on the Elvis story. I should also mention the prosthetic make up used on Hanks and Butler to make them look older which is brilliant. It’s not the instant classic some have claimed in my opinion, it is however a very good film and well worth seeing whether you are an Elvis fan or not.

Up next I will probably watch Thor: Love & Thunder, the new offering from Marvel which hits UK cinemas this week. I’d also like to see the new Minions movie. They are always fun. Do you have suggestions or requests for things you’d like me to review? Feel free to leave a comment, drop me an email or Tweet.

Have you seen Elvis? What’s your verdict on it? I’m always keen to hear your feedback.

Until next time, take care of yourselves. Elvis has left the building…

Dan

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