Film Review: "Elvis" (2022)
A perfectly adequate show
Musical Biopics are a type of film genre that, for me, has grown stale. I’ve never cared far too much for them but, once in a while, one could take me by surprise. That was the case in 2004 with “Ray” starring Jamie Foxx. He was easily able to disappear into the role of Ray Charles, immortalizing the legendary Blues musician. His Academy Award Win for Best Actor was highly deserved and forever paved the way for his career as a serious actor. Ever since then, it seems that Musical Biopics only have one purpose for existing: cheap Oscar Bait. A perfect example of this is 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the film that granted Rami Malek his Oscar for Best Actor. I’m not saying that he didn’t deserve it but, what else does anyone remember about that movie?
I was far from enthusiastic to see that we would be getting yet another Elvis Pressley movie. However, that was until it was announced that Baz Luhrmann would be directing the biopic. For those unfamiliar, Luhrmann is the director behind classics such as 2013’s “The Great Gatsby”, 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!”, and 1998’s “Romeo & Juliet”. Luhrmann being attached to any film is a draw for me because of his energetic, tongue-in-cheek style. He’s able to take a tragic story about love, status, heartbreak, and elitism, “The Great Gatsby”, and turn it into a majestic experience of a film, without losing the heart of its narrative. He’s also known for bringing a sense of anachronism to his films as well. With “Romeo & Juliet”, the cast spoke their lines in Shakesperean English while the film remain set in its modern, late 90s Miami setting. In my two favorite films of his, “Moulin Rouge!” and the aforementioned “Great Gatsby”, the story’s setting wouldn’t change but, the soundtrack would add even more energy to the films themselves. It’s safe to say that I was very intrigued with what kind of energy Baz Luhrmann could bring with an Elvis Pressley biopic.
The film explores the life and music of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), seen through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The story delves into the complex dynamic between Presley and Parker spanning over 20 years, from Presley's rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America. Central to that journey is one of the most significant and influential people in Elvis's life, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge).
The film starts off with Tom Hanks’ Colonel Parker narrating the story of how he started out, pre-dating his time with the Rock & Roll icon. Then, he proceeds to manipulate the audience by telling the events of the film’s narrative from his point of view. However, since this is a Baz Luhrmann film, he doesn’t do so while sitting in a chair by a fireplace or via an interview with a journalist. No, instead, he gets us started on this chaotic journey by walking down the long stretches of the floor of a Las Vegas casino in a hospital gown, looking about as unhinged as Jared Leto in basically every movie post “American Psycho”. A visual that shows us how sycophantic he is with his favorite pastime, gambling. If the movie “Uncut Gems” doesn’t scare you out of gambling, this sure as hell will. Tom Hanks has always been a legend on screen for nearly 40 years and has always wielded his charisma with finesse and ease, ruling the screen with an iron fist. As is the case with Tom Parker, Hanks knew what kind of film he was in and very much understood the assignment. Hanks plays against type as the slimy and charming grifter that Parker truly is.
As great as the legendary Tom Hanks is, the star of the show is certainly Austin Butler. As was the case with both Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, Butler brings the musical legend to life. Not only does he look the part but, he easily perfects the voice and mannerisms of Elvis Pressley. It was very telling that Butler worked incredibly hard to prepare for this role and it sure as hell paid off. He and Hanks work incredibly well together on screen and do a pretty good job of not trying to upstage one another. Another stand out in this film is Olivia DeLonge as Elvis’s wife, Priscilla. She doesn’t get too much to do but, she and Butler have believable chemistry as the film’s central couple.
As far as this being a musical biopic, the film does fall victim to genre conventions. For starters, The movie leans a bit too much into hero worship territory when it occasionally lionizes Elvis. I’m not saying that Elvis should be the villain of his own story and I do, to a certain degree, respect that he has established a legacy but, I feel like the film glosses over his flaws a bit too much. The film also clocks in at about two hours and thirty-nine minutes, a run time that should cover a lot of ground considering that the story takes place over the course of twenty years. However, we have frequent montages of Elvis performing on stage, taking away from the spectacle that made him a household name. What makes this even more baffling is that what we are forced to spend more time on is every cliche known to man. The Bandmates/friends falling out in act 2, the second act concluding with the death of a major character, and the generic ultimatum scene in act 3. Even the dialogue perpetuates this with such lines as “We are two odd and lonely children, you and I”, “Without me there would be no Elvis Pressley”, and “This is Show Biz”. It stands above plenty of other biopics in terms of its cliches but, they still linger in this film.
The most disappointing aspect of this, however, is that “Elvis” doesn’t feel too much like a Baz Luhrmann film. If anything, it feels like the studio reeled him in a bit after everyone kept complaining about “Great Gatsby”. There are signature moments of Luhrmann: the zany overhead shots, the film’s 60s setting being complimented with the music of Doja Cat, and the breakneck, hyperactive editing but, the energy is kind of lacking, especially in the third act. Granted, I’m pretty sure Baz & company wanted to treat parts of this story with sensitivity and grace but, it ultimately feels too safe. The pacing is also an absolute drag. It starts off fairly okay until we get to the last half where it takes forever to end.
Issues aside, I actually found “Elvis” to be an adequate film. I didn’t hate it nor did I love it. Austin Butler’s agent is going to be swarmed with phone calls following this film due to his incredible performance. I would be shocked if he wasn’t at least nominated come awards season, Butler deserves all the praise for this film. Tom Hanks is, along with Morgan Freeman and Samuel L Jackson, one of those actors that don’t even have to try anymore to turn in a good performance. As Colonel Tom Parker, he is delightfully insane and appropriately hammy. Luhrmann brings some energy to the film but, it doesn’t reach the heights of “Great Gatsby” or “Moulin Rouge!” I appreciate what the film has to say about the cost of fame and fortune, however, it does not outweigh its overreliance on genre cliches and lackluster pacing. It’s far from perfect but, still, fairly enjoyable for both fans and non-fans alike.
It may be formulaic but, I appreciate what Baz Luhrmann has done with “Elvis”, a flawed yet well-directed biopic that is anchored by a star-making performance by Austin Butler.