There are few people of the twentieth century as iconic and well-known as Elvis Presley. Still to this day young audiences keep getting introduced to him, be it via a piece of iconography, the numerous pop culture references or the continual replay-value of many of his most iconic songs like Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling in Love and Suspicious Minds. Not to mention his various costumes and outfits, his singing and dancing style, his smile and his long-standing association with Las Vegas. Despite his death at the relatively young age of 42 he managed to create a legacy for himself that will almost certainly make him remembered for many generations down the line. Well, maybe he didn’t completely manage his legacy himself. That would have been handled by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. A shadowy figure, it’s been revealed over the years how Parker swindled and manipulated Elvis into bad deals, taking large amounts of his earnings and enabling Elvis’ crippling drug and substance abuse in his later years. It’s a story all too familiar in the world of show business, with many similar examples that have followed. Perhaps the closest contemporary analogy to this sort of abusive relationship and misuse of one’s powers would be Britney Spears, who thankfully now lives in control over her own life. But Elvis never made it out, and it’s probably the most tragic aspect of his story.
And now, the one and only Baz Luhrmann, the extravagant and flamboyant Australian film director of such stylish and glamorous films such as Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby has turned his eye towards Elvis and has turned his life into something truly larger than life in a way only Baz could do it. Presumably thanks to the success of Bohemian Rhapsody we’ll be receiving a number of musical biopics centering on some of the most iconic musicians and artists of the last fifty years: Whitney Houston, Weird Al Yankovich, the Grateful Dead, Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, hell even a Madonna biopic directed by…Madonna. And now Baz has transformed the King of Rock of Rock and Roll into a very modern and energetic biopic. And I think it’s not only one of Luhrmann’s best films but it’s also one of the more entertaining biopics in recent years.
Luhrmann has decided to tell the story of Elvis through the eyes of Colonel Tom Parker, and show how much the two depended on each other, no matter how toxic their relationship got. Without him, the Colonel says early on, there would’ve been no Elvis Presley. The Colonel (who was never a Colonel nor American citizen, indeed was only some random Dutch guy named Andreas Van Kuijk) is dying in 1997, and in his dying state he reminisce back to the time in the 1950s when he first discovered Elvis in his humble days in the 1950s, and proceeding to manage his career all the way until Elvis’ death in 1977. Throughout the years we see Parker manipulate the rather naive Elvis into what becomes the tragedy of his life.
It’s a narrative device that feels very reminiscent of the structure of Amadeus, where dying and senile Salieri tells the story of Mozart through his perspective. I have to say, and this probably goes without saying, that Amadeus did it better. In Amadeus, Salieri is confessing to a priest and revealing his innermost jealousies and desires to the priest, whereas the Colonel is merely talking directly to the audience. It feels slightly more awkward than how Milos Forman and Peter Schaffer applied the similar technique in a much more smooth and natural fashion. Then again, Luhrmann’s movies constantly feature a voice-over narrator of some kind in most of his films so he’s definitely used to doing it. If we’re continuing the discussion of negative aspects of the film, I think the relationship between Elvis and his wife Priscilla Presley is seemingly underdeveloped. They just start out being in love when Elvis is stationed in Germany, and their relationship develops into the typical rock star marriage, with all the infidelities and everything that goes with that bringing down their marriage to the point of Priscilla leaving Elvis before his death. It’s something I think would’ve needed more development to be more impactful than it is in the end. Also on the negative aspects, I couldn’t help but keep getting distracted every time Elvis’ father Vernon appeared because he looks just like Frank Costanza in Seinfeld.
But despite all of this, I had a pretty good time with Elvis. Just by virtue of the fact that it’s un filme de Baz Luhrmann you know it’s gonna be told in a certain energetic style that could only be delivered by Baz Luhrmann, and he doesn’t dial it down in Elvis, not even a little notch. It’s not as out there crazy as Moulin Rouge but it shares with that film a similar kind of energy in its camerawork and editing that is unmistakably Luhrmann. The camera is constantly swishing around, up and down, left to right, and the editing is seemingly cutting from one angle to the other in the matter of a few seconds. But what that does is bring Elvis and his music truly alive and exciting. And in contrast to Luhrmann’s previous tendencies to throw in contemporary music in period settings like he did most famously with The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge, there isn’t much of that going on throughout this film as a matter of fact. The only major example I can think of that can be heard in the film is a Doja Cat song written specifically for the film titled Vegas (which incorporates elements of Hound Dog). There is also an interpretation of Cotton Candy Land that is a haunting and creepy rendition by Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak. Apart from that, the majority of the music heard feels genuinely authentic of the period and of Elvis. Little Richard shows up performing Tutti Frutti in a faithful (albeit more and modern energetic) version by Les Greene. Finally Kacey Musgraves lends her voice to a very heartfelt version of Can’t Help Falling in Love which becomes something of a leitmotif throughout the film to symbolize Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship.
There is also the real shining bright spot of this film that I haven’t even mentioned yet, and that is the King himself played by Austin Butler. Butler is a former Disney Channel child actor whose most high profile role to date has been as Manson Family member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And now here he is playing Elvis Presley and I have to say if anything in this film should be considered for an Academy Award nomination it’s by far Butler’s performance. The most impressive aspect of his performance is just how eerily similar his speaking and singing voices are so close to the real Elvis, and for the earlier parts of the film up until the 1960s it’s all Butler’s own vocals singing the classic Elvis tunes like Trouble, Hound Dog and Baby Let’s Play House. And most of the time it’s hard to well whether it’s actually Butler or Elvis singing which is incredibly rare for musical biopics. Most of the time they will simply let the actor lip sync to the original singing like they did with Bohemian Rhapsody or the Jamie Foxx-led Ray Charles biopic Ray. But Elvis joins the ranks of The Doors, Walk the Line and Rocketman of biopics that aren’t afraid to let someone else perform the classic numbers they’re asked to perform. Now they do play the real Elvis recordings (albeit remixed) in the latter half of the film, but the transition from Butler’s to Elvis’ vocals is so smooth and flawless one doesn’t even pay attention to the fact that they’re two completely different singers performing the same number. It’s really a genuinely extraordinary transformation on Butler’s part and worthy of praise.
If you dislike Baz Luhrmann in general and find his films frustrating (I myself have been a Luhrmann skeptic for a long while but have recently warmed up to some of his films) then I suggest you should stay away from Elvis because like I said, it’s full on Luhrmann without skipping a beat. But if you’re a fan of Luhrmann or even more importantly a fan of Elvis Presley, then you really need to go see this film as I think it does a great job with homaging a true international pop culture icon and makes him accessible in a way few prior attempts at telling his story have succeeded at.