By George Bate
The King of Rock Roll makes his way to the big screen in Baz Luhrmann’s flashy, energetic, and stylish biopic. Elvis explores the life and music of the one and only Elvis Presley (played by Austin Butler). The story is largely told through the lens of his relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) in a narrative that spans Presley’s rise to stardom and the influence he had on American culture.
Biopics about famous musical artists have a somewhat mixed track record. The thrilling, too-crazy-to-be-true tales of some of the most beloved musical artists are all too frequently distilled into underwhelming cinematic ventures that fall flat when compared to their source material. Elvis, in some ways, is no different from these kind of biopics. Luhrmann’s film adheres to the tried-and-tested structure of music biopics, but avoids being formulaic (for better or worse).
Elvis propels forward from the first frame and simply doesn’t stop until the credits roll. Those familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s previous works (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge!) will know that the frenetic, loud style of filmmaking isn’t to everyone’s taste. On the one hand, it means Elvis is unlikely to bore audiences whatsoever. On the other hand, it means Elvis can come across as excessive and brash. In some ways, the striking style and visuals feel fitting for a biopic about someone as legendary as The King of Rock and Roll, but, after an admittedly lengthy 159 minutes, Elvis grows a bit tiresome. It doesn’t quite deserve a comparison to a long music video, although it’s not far off.
Regarding style, it’s impossible to review Elvis and not comment on a particularly controversial decision by the filmmakers. Baz Lurhman’s characteristic inclusion of modern music in period pieces often raises eyebrows, but this decision has perhaps never been as questionable and strange as its inclusion in a biopic of the icon Elvis Presley. In a movie so committed to honoring the singer’s body of work, interruptions from contemporary pop and hip-hop music feel distinctly out of place.
When the style and noise are filtered and placed aside, and as the runtime progresses, Elvis excel in exploring the ways in which American culture transformed during this time. The cultural impact of Elvis’ presence and music is intelligently explored in ways that don’t feel infantilizing to those who are more familiar with the story nor unapproachable to those who are unexposed to Elvis and his influence. The strength of this storyline is particularly felt when evaluated in comparison to the film’s formulaic biopic narrative structure.
Perhaps Elvis’ biggest takeaway is the powerhouse performance by Austin Butler in the titular role. The actor, who is perhaps best known for his small role as Tex in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, truly becomes Elvis Presley. Butler’s performance is not an impersonation – it’s a full and genuine embodiment of Elvis. It’s a testament to the strength of Butler’s performance that it shines above and beyond the stylistic overindulgence of Luhrmann’s filmmaking. The same can’t necessarily be said for Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager. Hanks plays a sizable role in the film, donning heavy and distracting prosthetics. The legendary actor does little more here than than the sleazy agent/manager figure seen in similar biopics. The performance is serviceable, and not much more.
Elvis is 2 hours and 40 minutes of loud music, eccentric visuals, quick edits, and flashy filmmaking that, ultimately, culminates in an excessive and overindulgent cinematic experience. The formula of similar biopics is starkly contrasted with Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic style, which proves entertaining for largely parts of the runtime, but grows tiresome come the end. Instead, Elvis serves as a true starring vehicle for Austin Butler, who embodies the legendary singer to perfection. It’s a star-turning performance from an actor who will undoubtedly grace cinema screens for years to come. As such, Elvis manages to be a serviceable tribute to its titular character, but a stunning showcase of its lead actor’s talent and potential.