Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Biopics have always been a hot ticket item in Hollywood, but who would’ve thought that specifically music biopics would dominate the last 30 years of cinema? Over that period, we’ve seen the likes of The Doors (1991), Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), I’m Not There (2007), Love and Mercy (2014), Straight Outta Compton (2015), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Rocketman (2019), and that’s barely scratching the surface. The genre is so oversaturated that the films are starting to follow a cliched formula before truthfully adapting the musician’s life story. Amongst all the films about musicians, one artist who’s had no shortage of biopics is the ‘King of Rock n’ Roll’, Elvis Presley. So when it was announced that Baz Luhrmann would be making yet another adaptation of Elvis’ life, many wondered what he could possibly say that would be different from every other biopic, let alone every other Elvis film.
Lurhmann’s Elvis (2022) begins in a non-linear fashion, kicking off at the deathbed of Elvis’ long time manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Parker’s voice carries us through the story, narrating all the important moments of Elvis’ life, all geared towards explaining the many factors contributing to Elvis’ rise, downfall and passing. Parker’s narration isn’t just about telling us the story, but is also structured as something of an anti-confession, as Parker intends to clear his name of any wrongdoing in this sad story. Once all is said and done, we are given a glimpse into Elvis’ tectonic cultural influence, his musical influences and his humanity underneath the brand.
Despite Baz Lurhmann’s somewhat divisive status as an auteur filmmaker, it can’t be denied that his glitzy, glamorous and flamboyantly fast paced style is strangely suited to the Elvis story. One of Lurhmann’s signature tricks is to communicate the views and values of the era in a modern, over the top way. In the case of Elvis, this may be the first time that younger audiences understand what it must have felt like to witness the excitement (and controversy) of Elvis’ taboo breaking performance style. The film wastes no time in making the point, and the subsequent musical numbers are truly something to behold. This is what’s going to put the film above any previous adaptation of The King. It does a wonderful job contextualising the artist’s monumental cultural stamp.
In tandem with doing fine work depicting Elvis’ influence, the film also does a deep dive into his musical influences. It’s been widely discussed that Elvis’ music is heavily inspired by African-American artists, so it’s nice to see an Elvis film give credit where credit is due. The contributions of Soul, and Rhythm and Blues are not ignored, as Lurhmann makes Elvis’ respect and reverence for those styles loud and clear. With that in mind, it’s not just Elvis who gets the spotlight, as artists such as B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Little Richard all get moments to shine. Lurhmann uses these elements to input some (slightly) revisionist history, specifically showing Elvis as deeply active in the Civil Rights movement, but it helps to root the film in the time period.
As is to be expected, Lurhmann’s touch is all over the film, to the point where it’ll be solid gold for fans but may give naysayers a headache. This is especially notable when considering the film is over two and half hours long with a thunderous pace which practically never lets up. If the goal is to make the audience feel as exhausted as Elvis likely was night after night performing in Vegas, then mission certainly accomplished. What elevates the more grating stylistic choices is the layered structure created by the third person narration. With this he takes a page out of Scorsese’s book and lays bare the horrid beliefs of the narrator, allowing us to see what they can’t: a moral lesson. If there’s any typical Lurhmann flourish the film could’ve done without, it’s the insistence to pepper modern music throughout the soundtrack. This makes sense in a fictional story like The Great Gatsby (2013), but when we’re showing up to hear Elvis music, hearing modern music just takes us out of the film’s historical reality.
As far as the biopic formula goes, Lurhmann’s style and narrative focus helps to make Elvis stand out from the pack. Sure, it’s impossible to boil down a person’s whole life into a three act structure, but Lurhmann manages to get most of the big moments of Elvis’ life on screen without having to stretch the facts too much. There are some important omissions and some ugly details which are glossed over, but none of that takes away from the full picture of Elvis the man. This isn’t to say that Lurhmann doesn’t fall into the genre tropes, as the second half of the film can’t help but use the cliches. This means the film isn’t as unique as Rocketman, but on the plus side it’s definitely not as bland as Bohemian Rhapsody.
Obviously you need a strong central performance to make it all work, and thankfully Austin Butler is pitch perfect as Elvis. You quickly forget that you’re watching an actor, as you are totally convinced that Elvis has been resurrected. Butler is already an accomplished young actor, having appeared in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), but this is surely a star-making performance that will catapult him into A-List status. Oddly, the weak link is Tom Hanks, who is particularly annoying as Colonel Tom Parker. Sure, we’re not supposed to like him, but the strange Dutch accent he chooses to go with makes it feel like a Bond villain has been dropped into an otherwise realistic film. You can’t help but sit there wondering why the production didn’t approach any actual Scandinavian actors (Maybe Stellan Skarsgård was busy).
Ultimately what makes Elvis worth the watch is how successfully it untethered Elvis Presley from the brand, allowing us to finally see what the man himself must have been thinking and feeling throughout his whirlwind of a life. We are given the opportunity to love and appreciate him outside of the image of him (which is something even better biopics have failed to do). If there’s any declarative statement this film makes, it’s about truly mourning the loss of a talented yet lonely person who was taken too soon.
Best way to watch it: In a Las Vegas Hotel.