ELVIS – Review
In a rhinestone-studded, cinematic extravaganza, director Baz Luhrmann gives Elvis Presley his signature dazzle treatment in an energetic epic tale about Elvis but told through the eyes of his scheming manager Colonel Tom Parker. Parker is played by a winking, sinister Tom Hanks in a riveting performance. By rights, the film really should be called “Elvis and the Colonel” or maybe the reverse, as Tom Hanks’ Parker is a dominate presence, serving as our master of ceremonies and narrating events from his point-of-view. Elvis is played winningly by Austin Butler, who not only looks like Elvis but sings some of his early hits while performing with hip-swiveling verve.
Luhrmann’s ELVIS is less a straight-forward admiring biopic than a magical fairy-tale built around the complicated relationship between the singer and his shady manager. The young Elvis makes a deal with the slick Parker that is a double-edged sword, bringing fame along with a Faustian bargain.
This drama may not be what Elvis fans expect but it is a colorful, entertaining film that casts the two central figures in Presley’s life as forces of light and dark. Such a good-versus-evil lens almost requires a less than completely truthful approach to the facts, and indeed ELVIS is no documentary. Instead it is a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of film, but one which does not require a viewer to be an Elvis fan, only be interested in the magic of stardom and star-making. For those of us who are more Baz Luhrmann fans than Elvis fans, as is the case for this author, ELVIS delivers on big entertainment. Luhrmann is noted for colorful, energetic, imaginative films like MOULIN ROUGE and THE GREAT GATSBY, and this one fits neatly in that category. His films are not to everyone’s taste but they do deliver color-drenched, visually-electrifying cinematic experiences.
Tom Hanks’ Parker claims to be the man who gave the world Elvis, in an opening scene. Luhrmann’s choice to focus on the complex relationship between the manager and the singer makes the film more interesting and compelling than a simple biopic. Tom Parker was no colonel, merely adopting a courtesy title common in Old Southern tradition, and his real name was not Parker either. What he was was a con man straight out of carny life, something the character admits in early on in voice-over. He was a man with a murky, secretive past who may have been born in Holland, but someone always on the hunt for talent to promote and from which to profit.
Elvis, played by Austin Butler (could there be a more perfect Southern moniker?), fit the bill when Col. Parker (Hanks) spots the young ambitious singer while touring with squeaky-clean country musician Hank Snow (David Wenham) and his musician wannabee son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee).When Parker sees Elvis perform and his audience go wild, Parker recognizes Elvis Presley is just what radio stations in the racially-segregated 1950s were salivating for: a white man who could sing Black music and perform it with that same wild energy. Parker knows he has found gold.
ELVIS is filled with Luhrmann razzle-dazzle and beautiful over-the-top delights, with Col. Parker coming across as a carnival barker luring us in. But it also is clear that Luhrmann is an Elvis fan, and his Elvis, played with smoldering charm by handsome Austin Butler. is like a force of nature, singing with irresistible force while wiggling and gyrating sexily across stage. “Elvis the Pelvis” was something that hit female audiences like a thunderbolt in the sexually-repressive ’50s, and the film captures that magic with bravura. Tom Hanks’ Col. Parker styles himself as the puppet master but the singer’s connection to his audience makes it clear he just hitched his wagon to that thunderbolt, a popular culture phenomenon that had mid-century America all shook up – uh-huh.
Most are familiar with Elvis’s complicated, exploitative relationship with Parker but Luhrmann and Tom Hanks squeeze every drop of drama from that, while still covering the outlines of Presley’s life. Luhrmann goes with that Faustian theme, giving Parker a carny sideshow, con man aspect that the film’s Parker himself embraces, which gives the drama a glittery surface with a dark undercurrent.
Elvis is played by Austin Butler with convincing sincerity and hip-swiveling skill. Butler plays young Elvis as a sort of innocent drawn into the Colonel’s seductive, slippery carnival world with promises of fame and riches. But his Elvis also has boundless ambition and a rebel streak that makes him chafe at the Colonel’s efforts to sanitize his image.
The film has a surprising honesty about Presley’s debt, musically and in performance style, to Black musicians, with bits featuring Little Richard (Alton Mason), B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and other greats. It is something the real Elvis himself acknowledged but is too often seems downplayed in adoring bios, in favor of focusing instead on his roots in gospel (again, shared by many Black musicians). Luhrmann is careful to correct some of that, although it does over-correct a bit with barely a nod to Black churches and only a little on Elvis’ love of gospel music. Presley grew up poor in the South, surrounded by Black musicians and their music, so it is natural that would be the music he played, gospel and blues along with country and early rock. He just happened to be white, and therefore acceptable to the music business of the racist, segregated 1950s. Elliott Wheeler and Anton Monsted’s musical score brings in more of Black voices, both Elvis’s contemporaries in enjoyable film segments and current Black artists in the sound track.
There is less honesty about Elvis’s other aspects of his career and life. His relationship with his wife Priscilla is depicted in glowing terms, with the film baldly failing to note her age – fourteen – when the 24-year-old Presley first met her. It works for Luhrmann’s purposes to sanitize Elvis a bit to increase the contrast with Parker, but a little more truth about Elvis’s well-known shortcomings might have been more convincing. The film also skips the singer’s strange meeting with Richard Nixon and glosses over how the pop music cultural earthquake caused by the Beatles and the British Invasion changed the direction of rock music and sent Elvis over to country music radio stations, something that sparked an Elvis-versus-Beatles pop music fan divide that persisted for years. Instead, ELVIS steers away from those negatives, personal and professional, to present Elvis in a more positive light, in better contrast with the sinister Col. Parker.
And sinister is the right word for the film’s exploitative Parker, something that Tom Hanks gleefully leans into. Tom Hanks gives a gripping, award-worthy performance as Col. Parker, a slick character who has a mysterious past. Tom Hanks’ Parker openly talks to the audience about being a con man but he is less forthcoming about his own past and even country of origin. That good-and evil contrast between Parker and Presley means the film also leans into the melodrama, although Luhrmann makes that work for the film’s entertainment value. And this film is highly entertaining, as long as one goes along with what it is and doesn’t expect it to be what it is not.
Austin Butler does his own singing as the young Presley and delivers a moving, smoldering performance as the ambitious young singer, struggling against restraints that Parker imposes. In the later Vegas years, Butler gives a very convincing stage performance, although it is mostly Presley’s voice we hear and Butler never does say “thank you, thank you very much.” This may be a star-making role for Butler, who has only been seen in a few supporting roles prior to this.
As you would expect from Luhrmann, the film is visually dazzling, full of color and movement, like a candy-colored carnival ride, which is very fitting for the subject. ELVIS was filmed, not in Memphis, but in Luhrmann’s native Australia, with the director carefully recreating important locations from Presley’s life. With its focus on the relationship between Elvis and the Colonel, it spends less time on Elvis’ childhood but does present his close relationship with his beloved mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) and less close relationship with his ineffective father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), as well as Parker’s exploitation of Presley’s warm feelings about family. Yet everything is presented in a glowing, neon light, the good and the bad.
Once the film gets to the Elvis movies and the Vegas era, the film loses some steam, just as Presley’s career did, but the film is never ceases to keep us engaged and entertained. There is an emotionally complex moment when Austin Butler’s Presley finally realizes the truth of the deal he made with Parker, a low moment for the singer that is coupled with his growing health issues and personal issues. Late in the film, it gives Elvis fans a special treat, with moving archival footage of the real Elvis in a late-life Las Vegas performance, an overweight but still charismatic Elvis seated at a piano in his big-collared, sequined costume and crooning affectionately to his adoring fans. It is a sweet, event bittersweet, note to end the film, one that might touch even non-Elvis fans.
ELVIS offers an entertaining carnival ride version of Elvis Presley’s and Tom Parker’s story, suffused with Baz Luhrmann’s color-drenched signature style, and elevated with an award-worthy turn by Tom Hanks as the manipulative, mysterious Tom Parker and a breakout charismatic performance by Austin Butler as Elvis. If you are a fan of either Baz Luhrmann or Elvis Presley, this one hits the mark.
ELVIS opens June 24 in theaters.
RATING: 3.5 out of 4 stars