Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Elvis Presley is an icon. Given his iconic status, it is surprising that he’s never had his life adapted on the big screen before. Less surprising, is that Baz Luhrmann would be the man to do it.
Despite the film’s name, Elvis isn’t the films narrator, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) takes on this role, and as unreliable as he is, this makes more sense to fit with Luhrmann’s style. The story he is telling is heightened, it starts with a fourth wall break by a dying man trying to prove to the audience that he isn’t the villain of the story and that he was the one that made Elvis become the icon.
This choice is actually a good one, at least from a narrative standpoint. Parker was a showman, an ex-carny, and that’s the aesthetic that the film has. The worst part about having Hanks narrate the film is how insufferable his performance is, some people will blame the prosthetic he wears, but Hanks simply can’t act past the prosthetic. Unfortunately, he is the weakest aspect of the film and it’s hard to say if making his performance as awful as possible was a way for the audience to dislike Col. Parker as much as possible.
The prosthetic make-up itself on Hanks by Sean Genders is brilliant. Hanks looks like Parker, but his performance is flat. It’s as if he believed the prosthetics would do all the work for him. But as poor as I found Tom Hanks’ portrayal, Austin Butler’s performance is the exact opposite. The aspect of Butler’s portrayal that I really loved was that he never used those typical ‘Elvis-isms’ we’ve come to associate with Elvis. There’s no upturned lip, no “thank you, thank you very much”, instead Butler plays Elvis seriously, and it works perfectly.
Butler starts as Elvis in his 20s and up to the final weeks of his life, where he re-enacts his rendition of ‘Unchained Melody’ that would become one of Elvis’ most iconic performances. This is the live performance that I know Elvis best from. It is powerful and shows that despite his weight gain and drug issues, he remained an incredibly strong performer. Butler’s acting in this particular scene is the strongest in the entire film. I can’t think of an aspect he didn’t excel at, the Memphis accent is pulled off, and despite the fact he doesn’t look like Elvis, he has his physical mannerisms down pat. But when he performs on stage, these are the greatest moments in the film.
The scenes with Elvis on stage are some of the most spectacular, and if you’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, this shouldn’t be surprising. Luhrmann has never shied away from filling every frame of his films with as much as he can. However, the scenes in Elvis are far more restrained than the rest of his filmography, almost savouring the quick cuts, zooms and bombastic music just for the scenes when Elvis is performing on stage or surrounded by the music that inspired him.
One example of this is after Elvis leaves Graceland, frustrated by his family and Col. Parker, Elvis drives to Beale Street where he can be immersed in the gospel and rhythm and blues music that inspired him so much. At Graceland, the edits were almost non-existent, and the camera is stagnant. But as soon as he arrives in Beale Street, the energy is amplified and the camera work is the contributing factor to this, energetic and broad. The cinematography is a direct reflection of Elvis’ emotions, showing that performing and being surrounded by music were the things that gave him the most joy in his short but impressive life.
Luhrmann’s wife and long-time costume designer Catherine Martin has some of her best work in Elvis. The costumes that are the most prominent are obviously the ones for Elvis and his wife, Priscilla. Both have worn something that has stuck in our pop culture brain that is familiar to us, but in the film, they have been slightly altered to fit with this version of Elvis life.
Working with both Prada and Miu Miu, what Martin has created is a slightly modernised version of Elvis’ classic costumes. Looking at the costumes of Elvis’ time in Las Vegas, the theatrical extravagance of them has been taken above typical Luhrmann levels, becoming characters in their own right. As Butler performs in them, they become almost hypnotic, full of bling and fringe, perfectly mirroring the level of excess that Elvis’ life reached at this point. Flashbacks to his humble beginnings in oversized suits are almost upsetting, showing the way he has become more image than human at this point.
Like previous Luhrmann films, anachronisms are everywhere. There are period correct songs, but they have been remixed with newer artists such as Doja Cat or Tame Impala that add a level of energy to certain scenes. This is a Baz Luhrmann film. It isn’t meant to be historically accurate. The slight modernisation of costumes and music added are part of this story being a retelling from an unreliable narrator. After much reflection, I believe Elvis is one of, if not the best music biopic yet. The performance by the leading actor is almost faultless, and the use of film making techniques and the direction suits the film’s subject perfectly.
It’s easy to see why the people that knew Elvis Presley personally loved this film. Not only is Elvis a gorgeous film but it also shows the life of “The King” in all the glittery glory he was known for.