New from Peter Spedale on Be Movie See Movie: Movie Review: Elvis

Elvis Presley. The name alone is pure magic, and the performer is even better. I would call The King a perfect encapsulation of America: a dazzling entertainer fueled by and succumbed to the almighty dollar. So who better to direct a movie about this larger than life figure than the director famous for glitz, glam, and excess. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis goes as big as the star at its center, and also like Elvis himself, loses its way when Presley isn’t on stage.

Luhrmann’s mega biopic mostly takes us through Elvis’s (Austin Butler) life via his relationship with his business manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). After their partnership begins, Elvis’s career takes off, and he buys Graceland to get his mom Gladys (Helen Thomson) and dad Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), fully out of poverty. We see him meet his wife Priscillia (Olivia DeJonge) and get some glimpses into their marriage. In addition, we see Elvis’s post war comeback, and those Vegas years, plus what Tom Parker was doing offstage while Elvis was on it.

If you didn’t know who Austin Butler was before (I had enjoyed his work in the Carrie Diaries, of all things), you certainly will after Elvis. Director Baz has said that he views his movie Elvis as something like a superhero film. Superheroes have 2 characters within them: who they are with the suit (in this movie, I will refer to that Elvis as “The King”), and without one (that character will be called Elvis). It’s a testament to Austin Butler’s talents that he’s equally riveting as Elvis and The King. Onstage, Butler’s The King is sexual and musical electricity, shocking any audience member into full attention. He nails all of The King’s looks, gyrations, stage presence, and most importantly, musical ability. When the lights go down, Butler’s Elvis is just as compelling, basically stripped of those powers Butler shows us how nervous, scared, and alone he felt… and yet, he was also fiercely caring and loving to those people he was closest to. Casting a relative unknown is a risk, but Luhrmann struck gaudy, glitzy gold with Butler.

That’s good too, because the non-Elvis-y parts of Luhrmann’s film go from mediocre to cringey to sometimes unwatchable. The biggest sin is the movie’s greatest strength: Elvis the superhero. If Elvis is a superhero, it’s hard to treat him like he isn’t one. As Eminem said, he was the worst thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly and use it to get himself wealthy. Luhrmann makes it clear that Elvis’s music was based in African-American rhythm and blues; he even meets with BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson, and other famous black singers/songwriters in the movie. But for as bloated as the movie is, Luhrmann only dances around any issues Presley might have had with the black community, stripping any agency from the black entertainers and making them subservient to Elvis’s musical pursuits. Not great, Baz. Baz conveniently leaves out that Priscilla was 14 and Elvis was in his 20s when they started having a relationship, making it seem like she was at least around his age to maintain that superhero image. Finally, every great superhero needs a great supervillain, and Colonel Tom Parker is almost as badly conceived of as any of the Batman v. Superman villains. The Tom Hanks casting certainly lends the Colonel some humanity and complexity as all great actors tend to do. However, for this Elvis movie, Parker needs to be more cold and menacing, not tools in Hanks’s acting belt. As a result, Luhrmann directs Parker as mysterious mostly, stripping any character traits away from Parker other than cold hard capitalist money grabber until its too late, making it impossible for the audience to get to know him and his relationship with Elvis other than a few Wikipedia bullet points.

Well, at least Baz Luhrmann got Elvis right. Thanks to Austin Butler’s herculean efforts, Luhrmann’s Elvis is a great reminder to kids today how big of a deal Elvis was, and how resonant his music, his movies, and his appreciation of Vegas was for an entire generation of kids. I mean, without Elvis, that means no Swingers, no The Hangover, and no Lil John jumping onto the DJ booth at the MGM grand spraying champagne bottles on the audience at 2 AM while you dance like a mania…..I’ve said too much.

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