With public perceptions recently sensitised to artist exploitation and financial abuse in the wake of the Britney Spears trial, the timing seems right for an Elvis biopic to dedicate itself to the role his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, played in the singer’s tragic downfall.
Narrated by Parker, Elvis tells the story of a conman who sees a career-defining cash cow in the young man who appeals to black and white audiences in segregated Southern states, and whose gyrating hips cause a revolutionary sexual awakening in his female fans.
Baz Luhrmann’s latest musical excursion is everything, everywhere, all at once. The opening sequence presents a flash-forward to one of the colonel’s most overtly brutal stunts: forcing the King to perform after a collapse; then the action jumps back in time to reveal their first interaction, while another flashback shows pre-teen Presley drawing inspiration from comic books and revival shows.
In the same fashion as its trailer, the feature itself drives the viewers through highlights of Elvis Presley’s life, like a herd of sheep, with no downtime or any particular depth to the depicted events. The scenes are comprised of so many cuts to different angles, without any of the new shots adding further information, the result raises the question of whether Luhrmann’s intention was to create a biography in the style of a Marvel movie. But there are only two things remotely resembling a superpower in this film: on the one hand, there is Parker’s ability to monetise Elvis’s controversial image by adding “I hate Elvis” badges to the merchandise in order to profit from fans and haters alike; on the other, in likely the precedent for underwear being thrown onto concert stages to this day, Elvis has the ability to literally charm the pants off his crowd – which is depicted with naive incredulity.
In Whiplash’s most famous scene, JK Simmons scolds his students for either rushing or dragging, but Luhrmann proves you can do both simultaneously. Despite the fast pace, the runtime of two hours and 40 minutes wears on and fails to amount to any actual insights into Elvis’s life.
Tom Hanks rather confuses as the caricatural antagonist in a fat suit and inconclusive European accent, but his impressive prior filmography will undoubtedly overshadow this minor misstep.
When aided by the camera – through shots in profile or in wider frames – Austin Butler is credible as the rock’n’roll legend. The up-and-comer obviously put tremendous effort into emulating Presley’s signature Tennessee drawl and his facial expressions, but any emotive work gets lost in the flashiness of the production. Still, this may not be a factor slimming his chances for an Academy Award nomination – after all, biographies are still the go-to genre for the Best Actor/Best Actress category.
The Australian-American production’s strongest suit is its music and sound design. It features renditions of the songs Elvis popularised, sometimes the Delta blues originals he was inspired by, but also, in turn, modern covers imbued by his legacy. This is where the picture succeeds in its statement on the impact the icon has on culture and music to this day.
Elvis is released nationwide on 24th June 2022.
Watch the trailer for Elvis here: