The making of a legend
Exuberant filmmaking complements the bombast of Elvis’ music and lifestyle
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Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby) has a flamboyant aesthetic that eschews restraint, making him a natural fit to tell the story of Elvis Presley, a talented artist also given to visual excess. Elvis, in theaters, is a visually stunning, sometimes surreal, film saturated with color and larger-than-life characters.
The 2½-hour-long film covers the rise and fall of the King of Rock and Roll, but Luhrmann focuses the narrative on the complicated relationship between Elvis and his manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
The story plays out like a Greek tragedy. Elvis and the Colonel are both great in their own way, but the things that make them great—ambition, tireless pursuit of applause, loyalty to one another—are the things that bring them low. The Colonel began his career as a carny, and he brings a philosophy of over-the-top showmanship to managing Elvis’ career. He doesn’t want to promote a musical act. He wants to promote the greatest show on Earth.
The Colonel gives Elvis wings to fly, but just like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, Elvis burns out and crashes. Luhrmann suggests neither the flight nor the crash would have been possible without the Colonel.
Elvis is at its best when recounting the duo’s rise to stardom. Elvis must figure out how a white man from Memphis can fit in while singing black rhythm and blues and gospel music. The Colonel must figure out how to promote Elvis’ infamous wiggle on stage while managing the fallout it provokes.
About halfway through the movie, Elvis’ career peaks and things start to fall apart for the King. Disappointingly, the movie also starts to fall apart. It loses focus, trying to become a tragic love story about Priscilla but glossing over too much of Elvis’ problematic courtship of the teenager. The movie alludes to our current fractured nation, showing how America was hurting during the ’60s, but there’s no payoff for the hand wringing.
Side plots detract from the tension built into Elvis’ struggle with the Colonel, but even so, when Elvis gets to Vegas and sings “Suspicious Minds,” Luhrmann leaves us with the feeling that the song reflects the unhealthy codependency between the two men.
Austin Butler plays Elvis and shows himself to be a star in his own right. His performance doesn’t give off a cheap impersonator vibe, and when he sings in the film’s early scenes, he truly rocks (toward the end of the movie Luhrmann dubs audio recordings of the real Elvis). Butler offers a nuanced portrayal of a sympathetic, yet flawed, Elvis. He imbues the role with both hunger and humility: Elvis wants to conquer the world, but he’s still just a poor boy from Memphis.
Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker is surprisingly weak. His performance veers into caricature, and the fat suit and facial prosthetics turn him into a comic-book villain. Hanks affects an inexplicable accent for the Dutch-born Tom Parker. The real Colonel’s accent wasn’t pronounced, but Hanks’ inconsistent impersonation swings from sounding German to Irish.
The film, rated PG-13, contains some strong language and depicts Elvis’ adultery and prescription drug abuse. No one expects the rock-star lifestyle to be family friendly, but considering this subject matter, Luhrmann’s interpretation of Elvis’ unsavory side exhibits restraint. Still, don’t take children to see it.
Elvis gives us a picture of a man who, despite his gospel roots, doesn’t understand the gospel. Elvis is talented and loyal, and he desperately wants to be loved. But he’s afraid that he’ll never be able to work hard enough to achieve immortality.
In a pitiful scene toward the end, he fears he’ll never do anything that will matter. He asks the right questions, but he just can’t seem to find the answers. Elvis is a beautiful, flawed, tragic movie about a beautiful, flawed, tragic human being.
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