Elvis is Baz Luhrmann’s best film since Moulin Rouge and the best music biopic in modern cinema. The epic film that spans the career and life of Elvis Presley perfectly captures his magnetism with a perfect performance from Austin Butler.
Lurhmann’s latest effort is a case of subject matter lining up perfectly with a director’s preferred style. It is a story told with quick cuts, surprising music cues, and sweeping camera movements.
The director opts for flair and colour even in dramatic moments. Subtlety is not a language that Baz Lurhmann speaks, and it was not something that Elvis Presley was known for either.
The film is told from the perspective of the infamous Colonel Tom Parker. Presley’s long-time manager. Played by Tom Hanks, he tells us from the opening that he had Elvis’s best interests at heart, that he was responsible for his rise, but not his fall.
Cleverly, the first lyrics we hear Elvis sing in the film, are “I’m caught in a trap/I can’t walk out…” the audience quickly knows that Parker will be an unreliable narrator.
What follows is what would on paper be a typical biopic. Elvis Presley finds fame, courts controversy, becomes yesterday’s news, and battles mental health issues before re-rising to glory.
All of this is known to even the most casual fan of the King of Rock’n’Roll, but the film avoids cliché with Luhrmann’s unique visual language.
Elvis’s debt to gospel music and southern rhythm and blues is acknowledged, and his privilege asc a white entertainer nodded to. Luhrmann does not delve into these part linearly, but cuts back and forth constantly through the movie. His career was based in the culture and style of Black America, and the audience is never allowed to forget it.
The plot explores issues of fame, money, loneliness, creative fulfillment, and coercive abuse. All with a thrilling momentum that makes over three hours fly by like a real concert might.
Integral to all of this is Austin Butler in the title role.
A depiction not an impersonation
This must have been a difficult role to cast. In theory, there are hundreds of Elvis impersonators in the world, many who work professionally. However, Butler does not deliver an impression, he gives a performance.
He is perfect in the live performance scenes. It is an audience that gave Elvis his power, and Butler somehow manages to convey what made him such a magnetic stage presence.
Butler manages to nail Presley’s speaking voice without it sounding like parody. He recreates the famous dance moves accurately, and his singing is eerily excellent when the film calls for his vocals to be used.
It will draw comparisons with recent efforts like Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, but Elvis exceeds both of these films. Luhrmann knows how to stage a scene and produce a spectacle like no other director. Butler’s talents combines with the director’s famous flourishes to really make the audience understand why people screamed and fainted at an Elvis concert.
Most musical biopics focus on making things look realistic. Luhrmann’s Elvis focusses on making you feel what it was like.
This is essential. To understand why Parker is so controlling of Presley, you have to understand why Elvis was irreplaceable.
Moving past some uncomfortable truths
Like all biopics that adore their subject there are issues that are glossed over. He met his eventual wife Priscilla when he was 24 and she was 14. Though one of the only scenes in their early courtship effectively shows her acting like a child, [she re-tells an argument with her parents] it quickly moves forward a few years past this discomforting truth.
The issues in their marriage that eventually led to divorce are not thoroughly explored. Although the movie certainly has the time to do so, these issues are not Luhrmann’s focus.
Although his reliance on Black music to become a superstar is stated and repeated, the perspective of the RnB community is never explored. Even though Ray Charles was critical of Presley’s reputation.
This is the issue with judging a biopic against reality. Do you assess it as a reliable source of information, or a piece of entertainment?
As the latter, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, is a modern masterpiece of the genre. And one of the directors best efforts in an illustrious career.