While most directors inevitably wind up developing a signature style, there are only a handful for whom it is so distinctive, that even many mainstream movie goers are likely to be able to identify one of their films. With his heavily stylized art direction (by wife Catherine Martin), propensity for anachronistic song cues, and flashy music-video-like editing and camera movements Baz Luhrman is certainly one of them. Elvis may be slightly subdued compared to his early hits like William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, but right from the moment a bedazzled Warner Brothers logo appears on screen, you can tell this movie is going to be pure Baz through and through.
The story is told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who we meet in a Las Vegas hospital bed in 1997 where he is recovering from a stroke and reminiscing about his life as the manager to one of music’s biggest stars. He first met Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) at a Louisiana Hayride show in Shreveport. Parker was running a traveling carnival at the time with country singer Hank Snow (David Wenham) and his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee), when he heard Elvis’ first single, “That’s All Right”, being played on the radio and immediately recognized the potential behind a white singer “sounding Black.” Elvis had been raised by his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) in the poorest parts of Mississippi and Memphis and had a deep appreciation for the music of the Black community, especially in the bars and clubs on Beale Street, which came through in his own performances. So, Parker tracked him down to that taping of Hayride and immediately tried to sign him up.
Presley proves very amenable to the Colonel’s pitch and winds up signing over control of his career, thus beginning a rapid rise to the top of the charts. While young America can’t get enough of him, his sexually-charged dance moves and his open association with Black performers like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) don’t win him any fans with the more conservative members of the public and he finds himself in danger of being imprisoned after an especially provocative performance. In order to avoid jail time, Parker convinces Elvis to enlist and he is shipped off to West Germany for a two-year tour of duty. Then his mother passes away, sending him further into despair, which he only begins to emerge from when he meets Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) overseas and quickly falls in love.
After the war Tom gets him a series of movie gigs, each filled with feel-good pop hits, though the culture at the time begins to pass him by. Music from bands like The Beatles and seismic cultural events like the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy have him longing to do something with more meaning. Feeling as though the Colonel’s control is doing his career a diservice he begins to make plans to part ways, but the ever-cunning Tom Parker isn’t about to let his moneymaker slip though his fingers.
While it initially seems like an odd choice to have a movie titled Elvis spend so much time focusing on his manager, it ultimately makes sense. This isn’t just a movie about the rise and fall of a rock music legend, though it is that, but also a look at human greed and just what some people are willing to subject others to in order to squeeze as much value out of them as possible. It’s not that the Colonel doesn’t have affection for Elvis as it often seems like he does, or like he can at least convince himself that he does, but when it comes down to it he will always choose his own financial gain over all else. While it isn’t Hanks’ best performance, he is more than adequate for the part, making a slimy and unattractive man feel convincingly charming when need be, even if he sometimes skirts caricature.
Butler is the true find here though. He’s acted before, mostly in little-seen TV series, but this is his true breakout performance, and what a breakout it is. He may not look exactly like Elvis, but he gets the mannerisms and voice down perfectly and makes it easy to see how the singer was able to so quickly achieve superstardom and garner legions of devoted fans. He is equally good at embodying the emotional and physical pain that Presley lived through in the latter parts of his career, making the Colonel’s machinations all the more upsetting.
As one would expect from a Bazmark movie, the musical numbers are all an absolute blast, with the occasional bit of hip hop or electronica even working weirdly better than one would expect. There is never a moment in this movie that isn’t a joy to see and hear, even if there are a few times when the plot seems to be meandering aimlessly. Once in a while it’s hard not to wish that Luhrman hadn’t exercised quite as much restraint with his usual visual style, but it generally works for the best with the material, making it feel more grounded in reality than some of his other films. This Elvis should make most longtime fans happy while also hooking a few more generations on his extensive catalog of hits. ★★★★
RATED PG-13 FOR SUBSTANCE ABUSE, STRONG LANGUAGE, SUGGESTIVE MATERIAL, AND SMOKING.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor