‘Elvis’ Delivers A Little Less Conversation, A Lot More Action (Movie Review)

The King is back. Elvis, the sixth feature from the heavy-on-the-spectacle director Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby), is bursting at the seams with all the pageantry and showmanship expected from the Aussie filmmaker. Starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Presley’s shady manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and Austin Butler (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) in a star-making performance as Mr. Presley himself, Warner Bros.’ big screen stunner might just be the out-of-body experience fans of Elvis have been clamoring for since his tragic death in 1977. For major fans, it’s time to get all shook up and head to your local theater. For those not into Elvis or just not that familiar with one of the pioneers of rock and or roll, suspicious minds may still be interested.

I still remember when he died. It was a hot summer in Chicago ’77. I was all in on this new movie called “Star Wars.” Yet while yours truly and the rest of my fellow elementary school nerds were gaga for Luke, Han, and Leia, my parents were way more into music. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors was played constantly in my mom’s Toyota’s state-of-the-art cassette deck (It could switch sides automatically!). Dad was always fussing with his home stereo set-up. I would help by cleaning his extensive vinyl collection with a lint catcher. He was a Beatles man. So when the news hit that Elvis Aaron Presley had died of cardiac arrest, it was a big deal for the world but not so much for my family. I had surely heard “Hound Dog,” but I was more into a movie that would soon release action figures (tiny dolls for boys), and my parents were into their counterculture rock. A week after his death, however, I would witness just how big Elvis was for those outside the Paras household.

I was staying after school at my friend Tony’s house. We headed downstairs to the living room. There, his weepy-eyed mother was glued to a tiny b/w television set. The footage was of Elvis in his prime and later in his heavier phase. I could tell he was talented, but I wasn’t moved like Tony’s mother. Most of my friends at my Catholic school attended church (I did not). This woman was devout. In the coming weeks, I’d see just how enamored she was of The King. For her, it was like Jesus had died. It was that big a deal.

In the following decades, I would become familiar with Elvis’ catalog. He has tons of great songs, and his dancing was phenomenal. But it wasn’t until seeing Lurhman’s film that it all clicked. Elvis truly was more than just a handsome (okay, very handsome) performer. In the 1950s, he was an important figure whose music challenged a deeply racist country. The kids loved him. Many narrow-minded adults did not.

Anyone familiar with Baz Lurhmann’s previous work knows of his maximalist style. He’s an “everything and the kitchen sink” kind of filmmaker. Lurhmann will employ eccentricities and flamboyance at every turn with a bright color palette, fast-paced camera cuts, and zooms. His best films, such as Strictly Ballroom and The Great Gatsby, marry the pomp and circumstance with genuine heartbreak. I’m not saying he’s Bergman, but I’m constantly in awe at how images so grand get paired with insight into personal despair. When we think of his movies, it’s the meme of Leo DiCaprio raising his martini glass as Jay Gatsby with fireworks exploding in the background. Subtlety is not in this director.

I was fully prepared for Elvis to deliver a stunning staging of his live performances. I got that as Butler leans into all of Presley’s moves, especially the gyrations and shimmies. There’s a danger element at play. His fans are ravenous. Lurhmann doesn’t tame any of it. Why have a few screaming fans when an endless sea of teens is just so much more? No doubt, every moment with Elvis on stage is breathtaking and exciting — you get it.

Yet to my surprise, the story of arguably the first pop star is rooted in the civil rights era. No, Elvis isn’t suddenly Chuck D, but his experience of growing up poor and primarily with people of color is something that the person inside all that swagger can’t turn a blind eye to. Is this all true? I have no clue, but as lensed by Lurhmann, Elvis becomes the embodiment of a new kind of American dream. Not born of faking it until you make it like the Jazz era in Gatsby but of the realness that makes one a star and terrifies those in power.

As the story progresses, we’re treated to a familiar rise and fall and rise that many rock biopics have in their DNA, but the Lurhmann effect on such a structure is engaging and narratively lean. The film clocks in around 140 minutes, but there’s nary a wasted scene. Elvis was not (predominantly) a songwriter, so the creation of lyrics and the long nights in a studio we’ve seen in countless tales is not here. Nor is the classic infighting between the star and other members of Elvis’ entourage. It’s a smart move as it’s not needed. The key element is Elvis’ persona versus the man who was struggling internally.

There are, however, incredible performances that are highlighted. One was a Christmas special for NBC that became the comeback he needed in ’68. We weave in and out with the television crew as Elvis, and his band, go for broke to upend simply singing tired Christmas tunes (And even get political!). The fly-on-the-wall nature of this extended sequence is a marvel. Another scene focuses on the years Elvis was essentially caught in a trap he couldn’t escape — his tenure at the International Hotel in Vegas. The life and tragedy of The King couldn’t be more clear. Shades of modern pop stars like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears come to mind. A grind of a life.

The script by Lurhmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner is more of a whirlwind of what it means to live larger than life as “Old Elvis” while the rest of him was collapsing. The supporting cast provides solid work. Olivia DeJonge (The Visit) as his teen bride Pricilla is a formidable balance, although she is underused. Often these scenes work because of the actors more than the conventional way they play out.

Austin Butler, it cannot be overstated, is a megaton presence throughout the film. He’s Elvis from frame one. So much so when I close my eyes, it’s him I see more than The King. It’s akin to how Val Kilmer (another former Elvis) took residence in my mind as Jim Morrison after seeing Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Butler’s and Presley’s voices were mixed together, which bleeds the authenticity of this superstar further.

Narratively, the story is told from the POV of Elvis’ infamous manager, the Colonel. Parker is portrayed as a schemer, an opportunist who no doubt is responsible for Elvis’ demise. We’re not exactly meant to root for Parker. It’s more a case of this snow job of a conman being his in own head, trying to justify his actions as he speaks to the audience. If there’s a weak link to this fabulous experience, it’s this character. I’m not sure if Hanks is the wrong choice as much as focusing so much on Parker overall. In time, I might warm to Hanks’ portrayal (like I did Tobey Maguire’s Nick in Gatsby), but upon first viewing, this oaf of a man is definitely not as compelling as Lurhmann thinks he is.

Beyond that, and to be fair, Parker’s is the reason the opening 30 minutes is the worst part of the film. Once Elvis becomes the film’s center, it’s all gravy. While this may or may not be as great as a trip to Graceland, Elvis stands tall alongside Top Gun: Maverick as one of the best studio films in years.

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