Elvis Presley occupies such massive and precious real estate in pop culture mythology, you could build several movies from his life and still not cover all the surface area. As an American icon, Elvis simultaneously represents our greatest greatness and deepest of tragedies: Look long within his legend, and you’ll find heartbreaking hints of what might’ve been.
A life with such neon glow doesn’t need the extra amperage of a director like Baz Lurhmann to jolt it into a compelling biopic. But, whether you want it or not, Luhrmann gets out his jumper cables and puts sizzle and sparks into his Elvis epic anyway. As a result, Elvis pulsates with CGI montages, frantic editing, and anachronistic remixes of the Presley catalogue. Your enjoyment of this movie will hinge on your patience for Luhrmann’s cinematic showboating. If you can buy into Luhrmann as a pop culture DJ, spinning his story on two turntables and a microphone, this could be a great time. Otherwise, you’ll probably find this an intriguing, well-acted disappointment–the CliffsNotes of the CliffsNotes of a biography too big for any one movie.
Luhrmann and company kick things off with the strange decision to orient their plot from the perspective of “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis’ eccentric business manager. Parker was a man of high ambition and shaky ethics who sauntered into the King’s life with the casual confidence of a snake oil salesman. When Parker first meets Elvis (Austin Butler), he’s a 19-year-old bad-ass–flashy, charismatic, and overloaded with raw talent. All he needs is a push in the right direction. As will become their lifelong dynamic, Parker settles onto Elvis’ shoulders as both angel and devil.
From here, Elvis skims all the greatest hits, musically and narratively. We see Elvis as a scrawny boy from a hardscrabble Mississippi family. Surrounded by a Black community, young Elvis is enveloped by the power of Southern gospel music. His mother Gladys (Helen Thompson) dotes on her son, but frets over where the path of a superstar will ultimately lead him.
With his good looks, sexually-charged stage presence, and thundering baritone, Elvis becomes a pop culture phenomenon. His gyrating hips provoke a frenzy of teenage screaming, and a nightmare for network censors. That’s to say nothing of his song selection, which effectively packages Black music for Eisenhower’s America. If the country had settled into a post-war malaise, Elvis the Pelvis represented the shake-up it so desperately needed.
That makes it curious that Parker steered Elvis into the Army at the peak of his fame. In the colonel’s mind, this would prove that the rockabilly rebel could toe the All-American line and be molded into a milder and more marketable figure. Unfortunately, this also dissipated much of the furious momentum Elvis had generated. And it establishes a template for Parker’s future decisions. At best, he was acting against Elvis’ best interests for his own gain. At worst, Parker was an ineffectual and stubborn businessman, incapable of grasping the juggernaut he had created.
Elvis spends most of its mid-section skipping across the surface. Lurhmann yada yada’s Elvis’ movie career in a whirlwind montage. The Memphis Mafia pops up in a flash. Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and Lisa Marie appear intermittently. The film also reduces Sam Phillips (Josh McConville), the legendary Sun Records producer who developed Elvis’ pre-Army sound, down to a glorified cameo. Phillips is a monumental presence in rock history, and marginalizing him represents one of the movie’s biggest sins.
The film is at its most compelling when it settles onto Elvis’ 1968 comeback special. By this point, his star had reached its nadir, and pop culture had completely left him behind. Eager to re-establish his relevance, Elvis finally pushed back against the colonel’s attempts to brand him as an Andy Williams crooner. The result was a landmark return to form for Presley, and it gave him artistic credibility for years to come. Luhrmann perfectly captures the edgy brilliance of this event, and it’s great fun to watch.
Of course, Luhrmann also spends a lot of time with Elvis’ physical and emotional decline. Everybody who knows can tell you this journey into pills and paranoia will be an unpleasant trek, and Luhrmann slogs it without revealing any new insights. Yes, Elvis died bloated and miserable. Yes, his so-called buddies turned on him. What I want is movie that can tell my why this final act turned so bleak. As with most of Elvis, this segment would’ve benefitted from a much deeper dive, or none at all.
Throughout the King’s rise and fall, the film’s biggest strength lies with its lead performances. It can’t be easy to portray someone with an army of impersonators, but Butler turns in phenomenal work. He never resorts to all-out caricature, while still delivering all the tics and inflections that made his subject famous. Most importantly, Butler bottles the pride, pain, and smoldering sensuality that turned mid-century pop culture upside down.
As Col. Parker, Hanks has an equally difficult needle to thread. Under a mound of prosthetics and an impenetrable Dutch accent, Hanks could’ve ridden this part off the rails, especially because Luhrmann opts to orbit the film around him. Thankfully, Hanks vanishes into the role, and perfectly conveys the hollow grandfatherly charm that drew Presley so close. In his narration, Luhrmann allows Parker to rationalize his pilfering of Presley’s estate and the hobbling of his personal and professional affairs. The more he speaks, the less we believe him.
That kinda goes for Elvis as a whole. The less you know the King’s story, the more I think you’ll enjoy this film. Dedicated fans will find it maddeningly insubstantial. Luhrmann adorns his story with over-the-top visuals and frenetic pacing, and the result is a superficially exciting experience. Elvis isn’t bad, by any measure. But it could’ve been so much more. Like its subject, this film stands as a testament to unrealized potential.
159. PG-13. On demand.