A glitter drenched, eye popping biopic of the King of Rock and Roll
By Naomi Roper
Elvis Presley died the month before I was born. Growing up as a kid in the 80s Elvis wasn’t a big feature of my life. He was the guy in the white jumpsuit. You could go to Vegas and be married by someone pretending to be him. The circumstances of his death were the grim punchline of a thousand jokes about faded stars. I loved Suspicious Minds and In the Ghetto but my cultural touchstones for him were Lilo & Stich and Val Kilmer in True Romance. About the man himself I knew little. Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis, a kinetic, operatic ballot which lurches between grand romance and epic tragedy is on a rhinestone-encrusted mission to change all that.
Elvis sets out to humanise the man behind the white jump. It’s Lurhmann’s first film in ten years (and his best since Moulin Rouge). Age has not tempered Lurhmann’s hyper-kinetic visuals. The first act is a non-stop, smash-cut, whirlwind of Presley’s early life and his discovery by Colonel Tom Parker. It’s the cinematic equivalent of downing 10 expressos, and 5 red bulls and then going to a rave. The first act flashes between timelines and key career moments giving you barely a chance to breathe. Key Presley moments – his conscription into the army, marriage to Priscilla, his film career, all flash by in seconds. Lurhmann is not a guy interested in nuance, everything is painted in broad glitter drenched strokes. You certainly won’t nod off during this movie. Lurhmann directs like a sugar-crazed toddler with ADHD.
Where Baz Lurhmann excels is in capturing the sheer dynamism of Elvis as a stage performer. The sequence where Elvis performs Baby, Let’s Play House at the Louisiana Hayride is the single sexiest scene I’ve seen in years and everyone is fully clothed. As the music builds and Elvis starts to gyrate hysteria spreads from woman to woman in the audience reaching a shuddering climax of screaming orgiastic fervour. They have found a new religion and it is Elvis Presley. It’s utterly electric.
Playing Elvis Presley in a way which doesn’t tip into camp parody is no mean feat. Playing the King and getting the ecstatic support of his daughter is almost impossible. Step forward the sensational Austin Butler whose beautiful performance as Elvis blew me away. Butler is incredible in the role. He is obscenely beautiful and Lurhmann’s camera caresses every inch of him but he can also sing just like Elvis doing all of young Elvis’ singing in the movie. The rendition of Trouble is all his and his performance is uncanny. Butler finds the beating heart of the man behind the legend. In his capable hands, Elvis is a sensitive soul, an artist whose creative ambitions were stifled by the greed of those around him who always tried to do right by his family but whose loyalty (and huge appetites) would prove ultimately to be his undoing. Butler is completely captivating and convincing in playing Elvis at every age from teen to his death at 42. I watched the movie yesterday and flashes of his performance keep returning to me. It’s a star-making turn.
Butler is well paired with Tom Hanks playing Colonel Tom Parker, who was neither a Colonel, a Tom nor a Parker. Hanks is the narrator of the tale, Parker the greedy Salieri to Presley’s Mozart. In Lurhman’s film, Parker is a cheap carnival barker who exploited his star attraction for his huge financial gain and who proved time and again that he did not have Presley’s best interests at heart. Hanks plays the role with an obvious relish. He so rarely gets to be the bad guy (the tepid remake of The Lady Killers is best forgotten) and he is having a whale of a time here. There is something calculatedly off-putting about his performance. The glee in Hank’s eyes when Parker realises the boy from the record all the kids are listening to is white (and therefore something commercial he can sell) is unseemly. The sequence where Parker scuttles around in the shadows at the Louisiana Hayride like some sort of portly vulture waiting to sink his claws into Presley is really unsettling. Hanks leans into the man’s venality. The sequence where Parker massively overplays security concerns to prevent Presley from touring internationally (as Parker was an illegal alien in the US) is pure black comedy. Hank’s Parker is one of cinema’s greatest villains and performed with just enough pathos that we understand why Presley stayed loyal for so long.
With Butler and Hanks acting their heart and soul out there isn’t a huge amount of room for anyone else. Olivia DeJonge does well with the standard “wife of a famous man” biopic role as Priscilla. David Wenham is amusingly prissy as Hank Snow, the man Parker drops when he realises Presley is a far bigger star. Elsewhere, Stranger Things star Dacre Montgomery impresses as Steve Binder.
Baz Lurhmann takes pains to highlight Presley’s influences. Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr), Sister Rosetta Thorpe (Yola), BB King (the only one not to get a song) played by Kelvin Harrison Jr and Little Richard (played by Alton Mason and sung by Les Greene) are all spotlighted. It’s unlikely to settle the debate on whether Presley’s use of rhythm and blues and gospel in his music was him reflecting the musical influences of the culture he grew up in (as one of few white kids in a black neighbourhood) or cultural appropriation. Lurhmann gives one single line to BB King to point out that if Elvis recorded Tutti Frutti he’d make more money than a black artist singing the songs ever could. But the point is then swiftly brushed aside.
But you don’t go looking to Baz Lurhmann for a sensitive discussion about race and cultural appropriation. Lurhmann’s films are grand operas about beauty, truth and love and Elvis is no different. Elvis explores the love the King had for music, for his family, for Parker with whom he was entwined in a toxic relationship of co-dependency, for Priscilla and his love for fame and his fans – an ultimately destructive love which kept him on stage long past the point at which he should have been dragged off to rehab. The tragedy of Elvis’s descent into booze and pills is heartbreakingly depicted. By the end of the movie, Presley is trapped in a gilded cage, locked into a contract at the International, all creative ambitions stifled. Lurhmann interestingly chooses not to depict Presley as he physically was at the end. Perhaps Lurhmann didn’t want to ruin the visuals by putting Butler in a fat suit or maybe he wanted to reclaim Presley’s image from the humiliating visuals of his final years. Butler is allowed one scene with prosthetics giving him a fuller face, a sequence Lurhmann dissolves into real footage of a clearly physically unwell Presley, too tired to even hold his microphone sitting at a piano and belting out Unchained Melody to the heavens while I wept.
Elvis is a glitter-drenched, blistering biopic with eye-popping visuals from maestro Baz Lurhmann anchored by a sensational, supernova of a turn from soon-to-be megastar Austin Butler which finally does justice to the King of Rock and Roll.