I saw Elvis Presley live in concert. It was March 1974, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I was four years old. I don’t remember it very well, but I do have flashes and images in my mind. I remember seeing my parents losing their minds, even though the stage, to my tiny four-year-old eyes, seemed like half a mile away.
I can see the lights, the “ELVIS” on the giant Astrodome screen, and that voice when it was all over, “Elvis has left the building.” My parents were Elvis people, and they worshipped the ground he walked on. The day Elvis died in 1977, I think I remember my dad coming home from work early and playing his records all evening.
Baz Luhrmann‘s Elvis has no interest in examining Elvis Presley in any kind of realistic light. If Luhrmann were to make a serious examination of Presley’s life, the result would be a lot longer than a two-hour, 40-minute movie full of sparkles, close-ups, and rapid-fire editing. That’s not a story you can tell in that kind of time span.
This is Elvis as a symbol, as an icon, as a superhero, and while the film brushes with realism, it’s only long enough for the audience to grapple with Elvis as a mortal man before he’s catapulted back into the constellations once again.
To be fair, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to examine Elvis (Austin Butler) because it’s the icon that changed the world, and Luhrmann wants to examine all of it under that prism, even his later years – sweaty, drug-addled, and bending to the will of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
Luhrmann cannot hide his love for the King of Rock and Roll and never once attempts any kind of unbiased examination. But if you know that going in, Elvis becomes much larger than the sum of its parts, much like Presley himself.
For example, the film gives us an Elvis who is willing to strip-mine Black culture and music and make it his own, but it also informs us that he did it out of love and not out of any cynical need to cash in. Whether or not that is true in the long run isn’t important to the story this film wants to tell.
We get a very romanticized view of his courtship of 14-year-old Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) — the film only very briefly mentions her age at the time, with Elvis ten years her senior — but because Elvis, in the context of the film, truly loves her and her alone, the film glosses over that unpleasant bit of history.
I give the movie points for even bringing it up at all, but again, this isn’t an intimate character study. This is a story told in broad strokes on a huge canvas. If Elvis is America, a symbolism that feels very much to the forefront of what Luhrmann is making here, then Colonel Tom Parker is our need to, despite ourselves, become complacent and gluttonous.
One could examine Elvis in that symbolism, and Luhrmann does nothing to discourage it; Elvis feels just as much a response to what has been happening in America these past few years as it is a study of Elvis’s stardom.
And, like Elvis himself, there are moments of grace and splendor and just as many moments of pure kitsch and corn. You can believe that this Elvis is the same man whose hips captivated millions and who also would eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches every day. Austin Butler navigates all eras of the King with poise and elegance.
Butler also fills Elvis with an inner life that cannot be buried under Baz Luhrmann’s opulence and glitter; the very few quiet moments we get with Butler’s Presley show us a man who is still trying to find his place in the world and sometimes succumbing to his baser needs and instincts. Those needs and instincts are personified in Hanks’ Parker, who in the film is a grifter there to wring Elvis dry of every drop of money and stardom that he can.
Hanks’ performance is odd and weird, only missing a mustache to twirl in obvious villainy, giving Parker a strange accent and a creepy demeanor. Parker (who was Dutch) looks at Elvis the way a starving man looks at a seven-course dinner, with pure avarice and greed.
Butler’s Elvis fights against his own weaknesses and against Parker’s need to homogenize Elvis into something more palatable for the masses: to kill the golden goose of rebellion, beauty, and sexuality that brought Elvis so much attention in the first place.
The film, like so much of Luhrmann’s other work, is full of glitz, hyper-editing, and more sparkles than on one of Presley’s sequined jumpsuits, but there are moments that rise above the cacophony and have real beauty and weight. The scenes involving the 1968 Christmas comeback special, where Elvis tries to reclaim his former glory even as Parker fights him tooth-and-nail over every creative decision, are done with adoration and skill, and you can tell this part of the story rang very true for Baz Luhrmann. There’s probably an amazing movie that could be made dealing with that section alone.
Similarly, when Elvis becomes a Las Vegas institution, Luhrmann knows how to add poignancy to a time in Elvis’ life that could be viewed through a crass and mocking lens. Luhrmann never makes fun of Elvis when he’s at his most vulnerable or lost to the whims of his appetites. It’s not subtle, but as we see Elvis sing the lines of “Suspicious Minds” on repeat: “I’m caught in a trap, I can’t walk out, because I love you too much baby,” it’s hard not to get Luhrmann’s intended themes.
It turns out that Baz Luhrmann was probably the perfect director for this material, at least in the way he wanted to present it. Elvis is beautiful, silly, obvious, graceful, overdone, and surprisingly insightful, and sometimes all these things at once. Those looking for more of an indictment of the man and the legend should probably look elsewhere; only Austin Butler’s tremendous performance suggests something more than surface level.
Like much of Baz Luhrmann’s other films, Elvis is at times abrasive and jarring until we hear the music and are transported. If nothing else, Luhrmann recognizes the power that Elvis had over his audience, and if he is successful in capturing a fraction of that, then he’s accomplished his goal. Like the man himself, Elvis contains multitudes, and not every aspect works, but the ones that do work spectacularly.
ELVIS REVIEW SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10
Warner Bros. Pictures will release Elvis in theaters on Thursday, June 23. The film is rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material, and smoking.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He has been a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer,” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.