Biopics of famous musicians have long been a favourite go-to of Hollywood, and understandably so. One of the biggest challenges for filmmakers is making their audience feel some kind of familiarity or connection to a film’s story or characters, and by featuring the songs that shaped the 20th century, it generates a sense of intimacy that is otherwise difficult to manufacture. The songs and influence of Elvis Presley are no exception here, and Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 “Elvis” is probably the most effective of the smattering of films from the last few years about famous singers at actually demonstrating why the world reacted the way they did and why the artist’s music generated such a fervent adoration. It wasn’t evident in Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury (I hated “Bohemian Rhapsody” so damn much), or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, or Taron Egerton as Elton John, because all these films focussed on telling the story of the lives and relationships of each of these people, and what made them ordinary, rather than what made them extraordinary. Austin Butler as Elvis Presley is phenomenal, and has captured Presley so perfectly, not only from the voice and mannerisms but to that unbelievably distinctive and magnetic stage presence. But that’s the thing, this is not just a surface level imitation, Butler is viscerally transformed and its completely conceivable that he could be considered the King. If Malek can nab an Oscar for that dumpster fire of a performance then Butler should in principle take home the Lead Actor award with no trouble.
Baz Luhrmann isn’t necessarily one of my favourite filmmakers. He’s certainly got an instantly recognisable style which is somewhat of an accomplishment in itself, but it only works with precisely the right story. I didn’t enjoy “Romeo and Juliet”, or “Australia”, or “The Great Gatsby”, and while I didn’t particularly love “Moulin Rouge”, I can understand why people did. Funnily enough, Luhrmann’s first feature film “Strictly Ballroom” is on my top 20 film list, so I’m never really sure what to expect with one of his new releases. When Luhrmann gets it wrong, he gets it very wrong, but when he lands, its something pretty spectacular. “Elvis” is definitely the strongest of Luhrmann’s catalogue after “Strictly Ballroom”, the frenzied and dazzling visage of Elvis Presley exactly the kind of story that plays to Luhrmann’s strengths. This is in no way a run of the mill biopic; Luhrmann resists the temptation to simply bring to screen the main plot points of Presley’s life with a couple of his key songs interwoven in sporadic montages. So much of the run time is dedicated to Presley on stage, and I’m glad that it was. That’s where he was an icon and that’s where people loved him. I’m so glad they didn’t waste too much time on his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) or his role as a father with Lisa Marie. For me, this sort of fluff in biopics never really tell us more than we could have already guessed ourselves and slows down the overall tempo of the film.
“Elvis” is driven by everything that made Presley iconic and when Presley first girates his hips following a lukewarm performance by neutered country singer Hank Snow and the women in the audience are overcome with animalistic, primal screams, I’m not saying that I was driven to necessarily the same state as they were but I could understand why. Right on sisters, I thought to myself. Admittedly, I would say that the first perhaps quarter of the film, Luhrmann gets a bit too carried away with himself. The amount of cuts, spinning frames and technicolour is just a little too much of an assault of the senses and there’s no moments of quiet for the audience to process what has happened in the previous scene. The other thing is, for some bizarre reason, Luhrmann has whacked in a few rap songs early on and its completely jarring. It bears no resonance with Presley’s music or his roots in Memphis’ Beale Street and luckily it wasn’t an ongoing motif throughout the film otherwise it really would have been to its detriment. And I do think that Tom Hanks probably wasn’t the best choice to play Presley’s scumbag of an agent Col. Tom Parker, because as thickly as he lays on the Dutch accent, to me that voice is just too distinctive and distracting to ever really work here. As much as I tried, I kept picturing Woody the cowboy wearing clogs and it’s a voice which is associated with one of Hollywood’s ultimate nice guys. Not the best way to portray a man who was ultimately a complete fraudster and remarkably cruel to Presley. I had no idea of the extent of Parker’s corruption, but its undoubtable (assuming that the film is relatively honest in this sense) that Parker contributed at least in part to Presley’s early death. I have to say, Presley’s decline is handled wonderfully well and it is heartbreaking to see such a talented and seemingly good hearted young guy be manipulated as brutally as he was.
I’ve always known of Elvis’ music but I’ve never properly appreciated it until now. I was genuinely and wholeheartedly moved by this film and for the first time in my life, a film depicting a famous singer has given me some sort of semblance as to what it would have been like to hear their music for the first time. My wife and I are pregnant with our first child right now, and we’ve been playing “If I Can Dream” to her belly to see if he’ll kick. We like to think that this song gets him moving more than usual but we’re probably being optimistic. Either way, because we saw this film, we now have a weirdly specific connection with Elvis that we never would have had before. Despite its early flaws, I absolutely loved this film, and if more people grow to love Elvis’ music because of this film then Luhrmann has achieved something remarkable in this sense alone.
By Jock Lehman