Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Written by Taylor Baker
Baz Luhrmann has returned to the silver screen after nearly a decade away from filmmaking with “Elvis”. A modernistic part musical part historical biopic on one of the biggest stars of the 1900s, Elvis. Luhrmann eschews the stripped-down plodding and formulaic approach that many historical biopics follow and focuses instead on what he does best, his ability to excite and entice. With frenetic and pulsating almost religious moments, he utilizes pop-like edits composed of crosscut sections of the screen showcasing different angles of the same live performance. Those performances dazzle and roar conferring audacity at minimum and jubilation at most. Luhrmann leans on one of the most reliable money makers for non-tentpole feature films in this era of franchise and IP cinema. Tom Hanks. Heaped in make-up with a dilapidated accent that sounds distinctly as if it is from nowhere. He plays Colonel Tom Parker, a carnie who finds a breakout act in Elvis to brighten his prospects. And the story we endeavor down in “Elvis” is his as much as Elvis’, used mostly as a framing device and contrast to Elvis, Parker ripped Presley off for millions of dollars and may very well be held responsible for the shortness of The King’s life. The film leaves it up to us to decide, as does Parker.
Elvis himself is played by Austin Butler, in his first major lead role after a slew of supporting actor turns in titles like “Yoga Hosers,” “The Dead Don’t Die,” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” He brings vibrancy, life, and excitement to his portrayal. Shedding emotions into those of us viewing at the theater just as easily as his sweat drips on the crowd as he performs. And Luhrmann makes those performances glisten, they’re bombastic thrilling feats that though decidedly and visibly staged cause one to feel appreciation if not the awe he was doubtless reaching for. And what is Elvis without his ostentatious costumes, lovingly and diligently collated by long-time collaborator Catherine Martin, who notably is also Luhrmann’s wife. She also shares production design duties with Karen Murphy who worked with both Luhrmann and Martin on the short-lived Netflix series, “The Get Down.”
The film itself starts at the end of Parker’s life and goes back to the formation of Presley’s love for soul music as he peeks through a hole to listen to a musician at the local bar with his friends, while a bright white and looming revival tent lays behind the ramshackle bar. Though it is comprehensible why Luhrmann and his co-writers envisioned the story composed in this way, it doesn’t seem to make the greatest sense. Perhaps by framing it within the narrative of a villain, they were able to make Elvis more forgivable than he otherwise would have been. But I would have rather seen Hanks’ portrayal of Parker as a side story in the arc of Elvis than have them as co-leads of sorts, after seeing Butler’s turn as The King.
Austin Butler’s turn as Elvis is the very definition of a breakout role. Wholly committed, convincing, and magnetic. While you watch him the one thing you’re not asking yourself is if he’s really Elvis. There’s something about his portrayal that comes across as honest and loving, not unlike Jamie Foxx’s turn as Ray Charles. The suspension of disbelief comes easy in his, Hanks, and Luhrmann’s caring hands. His performance will likely be career-defining, as a relative unknown it’s difficult to project if he will be forever defined by his performance as a historical character as Peter O’Toole was in “Lawrence of Arabia” or if he can overcome this performance as a memorable figure and continue on to a monumental career as both Joaquin Phoenix and Al Pacino have. Despite the outcome of how the masses remember him, his career is likely to be one of the most notable to track since Florence Pugh’s emergence in the latter 2010s. And we won’t have to wait long, as he’ll be portraying Feyd Rautha in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part II.”
Luhrmann sprinkles in all sorts of figures from the era from the underused BB King played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. to Sister Rosetta Tharpe played by Yola. He in conjunction with the music and sound team, parade an aural scape that is both exaltive and daring, pairing contemporary music and recordings against old. It has moments that cause one to feel the definition of rock and roll. “Elvis” may not accomplish all that it dared to, but it is one of the most vibrant biopics in years, and may very well be the calling card of a budding film star.
“Elvis” is in wide theatrical release.