From his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi to his rise to stardom starting in Memphis, Tennessee and his conquering of Las Vegas, Nevada, Elvis Presley becomes the first rock ‘n roll star and changes the world with his music.
It’s been quite some time since I felt chills while watching a movie. And despite my initial reservations, Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” provided those and then some on more than one occasion. Was it due to the director’s spastic multimedia approach in depicting the king of rock ‘n’ roll ‘s life? Was it a dynamic star making performance from newcomer Austin Butler? Or was it simply being reminded of the power of the music that Presley built his career on? Likely, a combination of all three. While I find the director’s style to be overblown and distracting, his approach is perfectly married to bringing Presley’s outsized life story to the big screen. Utilizing every cinematic trick at his disposal, the filmmaker renders the legendary performer trials and tribulations as if it were a superhero epic with a relatable origin story and a broadly drawn villain. It’s a daring, fun approach that allows Luhrmann to utilize the sort of visual flourishes that are his bread-and-butter.
An unreliable narrator to be sure, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, with the help of extensive latex assistance), from his deathbed, tells us the story of his relationship with Presley. Right away we know to take much of what we hear with a grain of salt as the shameless promoter paints himself in the best possible light, justifying his actions again and again as to why he took advantage of the naïve young man who would later become the biggest star in the world.
It’s vital to remember the story is being told from this perspective, as the film jumps from big moment to big moment, many rendered in a garish, exaggerated manner. Luhrmann stages the seminal moments in Presley’s life as “events not to missed!” much as the Huckster Parker would, each singing appearance or recording session adding to the power of the Elvis myth.
That being said, there’s no shortage of praise from the Colonel where his young charge is concerned. As we see Presley rise from poverty, influenced by black gospel music and rhythm and blues, tentatively finding his way to local stages and then taking the music world by storm, Parker gives credit where it is due. His admiration for the young man’s talent and charisma, as well as his money-making potential is never in doubt. However, he cannot help but attempt to share in his client’s spotlight, telling the young man they are more alike than he realizes.
Of course, Hanks is great, a twinkle in his eye throughout, never playing Parker as a villain but simply as a salesman giving the public what they want. As for Butler, he’s electrifying here, not simply during the moments when he’s on stage during the singer’s first performances or during his famous 1968 comeback special, but also during the quiet moments he shares with Priscilla (Olivia DeJong) or B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) contemplating what the future holds for them. The actor takes the role and runs with it, the illusion he creates so convincing, there’s never a moment you’re don’t feel as if you’re intimately connected to Presley.
Every time he took the stage, Presley’s intent was to bowl you over and this is Luhrmann’s approach as well. “Elvis” is a whirlwind and not without its flaws, the breadth of the story the director attempts to tell ultimately working against him. Yet it’s never less than captivating, capturing the singer’s energy while telling his story with the respect it deserves, thrilling and moving the viewer in equal measure. In the end, Luhrmann and Butler more than take care of business.
3 1/2 Stars