Elvis: That’s Who This Movie is About...Right?
I feel like a broken record when I talk about most biopics that get released in a bid for awards recognition. Maybe I watch too many documentaries. Perhaps I enjoy reading biographies/autobiographies too much. I just never find these films to fully capture the person they're about, and usually they are tough for me to get through. (Rocketman aside, which I believe is one of the best biopics ever, and was egregiously overlooked during its awards season.) Such is the case for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a movie that is more about the visual spectacle of Baz Luhrmann and the conniving machinations of Elvis’s Manager than it is about the titular character.
Bright and Flashy....Like Vegas!
If you've ever seen a movie by Baz Luhrmann before, you'll know that the director is known for his decadence. Here, he somehow dials it up to 11 with the visual language, using extravagant set pieces and lavish costumes to help tell the story of the late singer. The costumes in particular are great replications of some iconic Elvis looks, and truly capture the eras of Americana that Elvis helped influence. The hair and makeup as well are top notch, with a standout being the work on Priscilla and her iconic 60's hair. There's also much to laud about the prosthetic work on Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker: he is barely recognizable, reminding me of Colin Farrell (my dear friend) in his recent turn as The Penguin.
The story is traditional biopic fodder, trying to encompass the entirety of Elvis's life and career, but through the lens of his manager, Col. Parker. My issue with this, is that the movie is called Elvis, and I was hoping that he would be more of an active character as opposed to a plot device in someone else's story. We hear all of these events from a character who was actively effected by Elvis's choices, and who held opinions about them, which makes it harder for us, as viewers, to care about Elvis and form our own opinions on the events of his life. Parker however, was such a mysterious person, that we're not able to fully connect with him either, leaving this nearly three hour film feeling a little aimless.
Performances Good and Odd...like Vegas!
Austin Butler's performance as Elvis feels not dissimilar to Ana de Armas in Blonde, a performance that could be good, but doesn't feel supported by the script. When he is portraying the stage Elvis, gyrating and making the audience swoon, he's great. He captures Presley's rhythms and maneuvers to a spectacular degree, but then the music stops...and we watch scenes with an Elvis that doesn't quite feel as lived in. The few scenes with that same sparkle there were in his dramatic moments with wife Priscilla towards the end of the film. I have to give credit to Olivia DeJonge, who is really doing great work as Priscilla, a character who clearly cares so much about this man, but has to get out of his self-destructive way.
Then there's Tom Hanks.....I really don't quite know where to start. He felt so wildly miscast in the role of this slimy, conniving manager who exploits and uses Presley for all he's worth. He doesn't have the grit or the domineering personality to feel actually threatening, and his accent work is very strange. I think there is some intentional decision of his accent being hard to pin down, as the character is meant to be of mysterious origins; but at times Hanks sounds Southern, East European, Northeast American, and often hard to understand. While the prosthetic work on him is commendable, he is padded in a comical fat suit which only exacerbates the feeling that he can't be taken seriously.
A Few Final Thoughts...like Vegas?
This movie accomplished the key goal of most biopics...in that it got Oscar nominations. It also accomplished the secondary goal of most biopics, in that I spent the hour or so after watching it doing my own research into Elvis. I wish this movie explored more honestly the idea of appreciation vs appropriation when it came to Elvis' use of stolen music, and his being influenced by black musicians of the time, especially as he was not as close a friend with B.B. King as this movie portrays. It is such a nuanced conversation that I feel would really elevate the story and help it resonate with modern cultural audiences. However, Elvis as a film decides to focus on the flash and decadence of rock and roll, and only briefly touches on more hard-hitting ideas. While it is stunning to look at, it sometimes drags, and never gives you the opportunity to fully invest in the titular character, instead trying to pull your focus more to a bizarre performance from Tom Hanks.
As for my next piece of writing, it will likely be an apology note, as my mother-in-law is a massive Elvis fan. Sorry...sorry very much.