Director Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, a biopic about Elvis Presley, stars the mesmerizing Austin Butler as the “king of rock and roll.” The film shows the iconic singer becoming a victim to the great faceless masses of adoring crowds.
Colonel Parker, his manager played by Tom Hanks, tells us he died of love, not the narcotics or the overindulgence of cheeseburgers. It wasn’t just any old love; it was the intoxicating devotion of the largest audience in the world.
The film does a great job of showing us the ways in which Elvis interacted with his audience. In the mid 1950s, we see him shake his hips for the first time, jolting the female crowd into shock and awe. In Vegas, we see a more subdued Elvis, a devoted, grateful star who tries to kiss as many of his older female fans as possible before leaving the venue.
He was a man propped up by modern medicine which was meant to keep fueling the ultimate capitalist machine – himself.
Austin Butler is absolutely electric as Presley. In each decade depicted in the movie, he sports a different accent. From the youthful, unsure star being born in the 1950s, to the confident, cool, glowing young movie star of the 1960s, Butler is consistently great and never turns off the charm. Even the bombastic, larger than life, personification of pageantry that was the Vegas version of Presley is played by Butler with realistic zeal.
The movie’s pacing is forceful while consistent; within the first 10 minutes Elvis is already a star, and though we get flashbacks and varied views into the many different eras of his life, one thing remains the same: Elvis is taking us on a ride.
The ride is narrated by Hanks’ Parker, who insists that he loved Presley genuinely. We see Presley perform on different occasions, on all levels of stardom. The music is loud and engaging, the transitions between scenes are atypical for a dramatic biopic, to say the least.
Critics will love it for the flamboyant, realistic costumes Elvis was known to love. The sets are extravagant, especially the one behind Presley on the 1968 comeback special. Side to side with the real documentary footage, the similarities are at once uncanny and unique. Butler’s movements mimic Elvis, but he never seems to be an impersonator. He inhabits Elvis, giving us a walking, talking, singing, hip-swinging personification of a man long dead.
Butler’s transformation into the icon that was Presley is a sight to behold. The dedication that went into this role is staggeringly visible. His face exudes the same glow that Presley’s did, and he owns the screen in every moment he is on it. His command of the camera is excellent, his singing on point, and his dancing is startlingly energetic and true to Elvis’ own character.
The lens of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ longtime manager and the man who profited greatly from the overworking of the young star, is, at best, an unreliable narrator. Though history has been unkind to Parker, who took 50% of Elvis’ royalties and kept him plied with narcotics of various kinds, one gets the sense that Parker was a father-like figure to Presley.
Though there are some less than factual elements in the film, they fit in well with the narrative being told. The popular myth of Elvis Presley is one filled with rumors and speculation, even from those who were closest to him. Luhrmann chooses the stories he thinks tell the best and most dramatic story of the man who became a legend.
The second act features the 1968 comeback special with “Stranger Things” star Dacre Montgomery as director and producer Steve Binder. This is the first time Elvis shows an independent streak, and due to the turmoil of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, he decides to switch things up and record “If I Can Dream”. It is initially labeled as a protest song, but is actually Elvis finally recording material that mirrors his feelings. Soon after, he and Parker start to bump heads.
Of course, there are inconsistencies here, not unlike your typical biopic, and some events are overblown for dramatic effect. One such scene is when Presley goes on a drug-fueled (and exhaustion-induced) rant on stage as he fires Parker in front of a lively Las Vegas audience.
This never happened, but it does show the behind the scenes conversation believed to have occurred between the two. In the movie, the two men reconcile, largely because Parker presents Presley with receipts totaling more than his net worth and dating back 20 years, but also because Parker’s doctor is the one who keeps Elvis on his diet of pharmaceuticals.
Once Elvis starts to go through withdrawal, he seeks out Parker and asks for things to return to normal. This is one of the more sad moments of the film and sets up the final scene for Presley and Priscilla to discuss Presley’s terrible drug addiction. She insists that he enter rehab and try to get healthy again.
This is the stopping point of the wild ride that the film has taken us on thus far. Prior to this, the film has been loud, almost comic-book-like with bizarre transitions, loud music and dream sequences. The cold hand of reality reels the audience in here and we all know Presley will succumb to his addiction.
In the last 20 minutes, the show halts completely. What has been a chaotic upswing to superstardom gives way to Elvis’ submission to drugs and his overlord manager colonel Parker. What follows are sad scenes of Elvis becoming estranged from his wife and daughter, gaining weight on his once prideful frame and babbling incoherently into the microphone that used to be an extension of his physical self.
After a hot, bustling explosion of a film, it all ends on a cold tarmac in a nameless place. The winter wind nips Priscilla and Lisa Marie’s faces as a depressed and confused Presley looks on. After turning down his wife’s request that he go to rehab, for his daughter if nothing else, he takes off into the sunset in his private jet.
Shortly after, it’s 1977, and we see Presley’s last performance as told by Parker. Parker describes Elvis as a pitiful representation of his old form, but he also admires the way he always gave it his all on stage for the fans he loved. Prosthetics play an important part in making Butler embody the bloated and washed up “king.” Presley is finally out of dreams and the credits roll as the postscript reminds us that this man is the best selling American music artist of all time.
When the final act hits, it’s hard not to feel for the man who died for those adoring masses. The only place he ever had freedom was on that stage.
Owing to the power of Butler’s performance as Presley, “Elvis” is a film which accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. This is maximalist filmmaking at its finest. As an experience, Luhrmann’s gaudy musical biopic sets the tone for what a true showman should look like.