Review – Elvis (2022)

Elvis-2022-movie-poster

Overview

Synopsis A dramatic retelling of the life of Elvis seen through the eyes of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Length 2 hours, 39 minutes

Release Date 24 June, 2022

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Warner Bros.

Directing Baz Luhrmann

Writing Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner

Composition Elliott Wheeler

Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge

When it comes to biographical films, there has been a recent trend in cinema as of late; a sudden interest in the lives of some of the biggest names in the music industry. Straight Outta Compton, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Rocketman are some of the latest, whereas Yesterday was a fictitious story that operated as a love letter to the Beatles. Aside from Straight Outta Compton which presents itself more as a traditional biopic, the others could be described as pseudo-musicals, where the movie appears more like a series of music videos with a plot loosely threaded in-between. While still enjoyable, it’s a style that leaves me unconvinced—are these good films or are audiences merely just digging the iconic music?

In this latest musician biopic, this time about the life of “the King” Elvis, I do have a few worries. Firstly, I’m not all too familiar with the story of his life or career, although I am keen to learn given the legend the man left behind after his death. But will this film really delve into Elvis’ character and motivations, or will it be yet another cinematic excuse for a slideshow of a singer’s greatest hits? It’s also a movie helmed by a divisive director: Baz Luhrmann. Personally I’m a fan of his style—I love that he’s essentially trying to bring the essence of the theatre to the silver screen, and covering the trials and tribulations of such an iconic and grandiose figure such as Elvis does seem to be a perfect match between a director’s vision and his subject matter. However, once again, is this film going to be yet another Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman where there’s more style than substance?

Let’s find out!

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some portrayals of crowds getting out of control. A riot occurs when the segregation between races is broken, and police are shown beating people with batons. Gun violence is attempted, and some real life murders are reported as news events over a television broadcast.

Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped once, although there is a reasonable utterance of the others, including the s-word and other common swears. Creative phrases are used to insult another person. A homophobic slur is used, while there are several news reports that use older racist terms against the Black community (not the n-word).

Drug/Alcohol References: One character becomes an alcoholic which eventually leads to ill health. Other characters drink socially and only occasionally to excess. Moderate portrayal of drug usage, both illicit and medical; it’s a biopic of Elvis’ life after all. It’s never framed in a positive way. Multiple characters smoke tobacco socially.

Sexual Content: No nudity, although women are seen in lingerie or are otherwise scantily clad. Sex is heavily implied although the act isn’t portrayed on screen; it fades to black/cuts to another scene. Promiscuous sexual relations and infidelity are portrayed, although both acts are not seen positively in the wider context of the movie. Elvis gyrates his pelvis and sometimes performs moves reminiscent of sexual acts, causing crowds to go wild. There are many close ups on those hips. Brace yourself. At one point, Elvis wiggles a finger.

Spiritual Content: The films details Elvis’ early years and how he came from a Christian family and was inspired by the music and worship at his local Black church congregation. However this influence is only most prominent in the first act of the story and eventually fades out.

Other Negative Content: There are numerous instances of financial abuse and manipulating people into contractual agreements that are not in their best interests. One character lies throughout the entire film.

Positive Content: The story fights against the concept of racial segregation, promotes artistic integrity and the following of one’s dreams, and warns against the dangers of letting toxic individuals and substances into our lives.

Review

Elvis is a film about an incredibly iconic figure that’s almost overshadowed by its own performances. The chatter generated by this movie isn’t predominantly about its portrayal of the life of the Presley’s but rather Austin Butler’s sudden burst into stardom. His role as Elvis instantly dominates any conversation about this film. With a filmography mainly consisting of bit parts, Butler seems to have come out of nowhere with easily one of the best performances of the year. He channels Elvis. Butler truly embodies Elvis’ heart and soul; it’s not a mere replica of mannerisms and dialect. His performance is rooted much deeper, to the extent that towards the end it’s genuinely difficult to tell the difference between Butler’s portrayal and the real historical footage—he sells the role that well.

It’s especially impressive considering that Elvis is one of the most impersonated people on the planet. It must have been a daunting task to find someone who can not only embody the legendary figure successfully, but also an actor skilled enough to fight off any criticism or belief that the role should have gone to someone else. So praise must be given to casting professionals Nikki Barrett and Denise Chamian for wading through those submissions and sliding Butler’s audition tape into Luhrmann’s field of view.

A lot of people aren’t a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s flashy and exuberant style of direction, but in Elvis it’s a wonderful match. He is a director that isn’t afraid to take a few risks and express his vision, and makes a number of bold choices throughout his films. Most of them pay off. Like many of his previous movies, the first act is a chaotic bundle of editing, quickly scanning the landscape and providing the lowdown of the main characters. Some will find the energy too kinetic, as the story whips back and forth across time, hopping between Butler’s and Tom Hanks’ characters before wildly driving forth the origin of Elvis’ musical inspiration. Personally I found the editing to be electric, reminiscent of the visually toe-tapping trumpeting bursts seen in the Oscar nominated film, Whiplash. At times it harnesses that wild frenzy of Elvis’ performances, simultaneously kicking the story along to its next destination.

There is an interesting use of split screen. The frame would be divided up with different images, some portraying different angles of the same performance whilst another square would feature an establishing shot. It’s not a technique that’s commonly seen in film. Most famously the technique featured in the finale of 1976’s Carrie, although director Brian De Palma later went on record stating he regretted the choice as it distanced the audience in the moment that was most personal for Carrie. It has a similar effect in Elvis, and I’m not too sure what impact Luhrmann wished to make by using it. Brian De Palma’s confession sticks out in my mind because it made me realize that I’ve never seen split screen done well as a storytelling choice, and I can still say that after watching Elvis. Yet Luhrmann’s usage is more effective as the inclusion of the technique does reflect the wider narrative.

In Elvis we always see the man through the eyes of another. The split screening is mainly used in the opening act, and it does distance the audience from him, as though he’s always at an arm’s length. It introduces him to us as the celebrity that we know him to be, with the divided screen showing him from multiple angles, like different viewpoints and coverage at a concert. It almost makes Elvis seem captured within a prison of the glitz and glam of stardom, with no opportunity to escape the viewer’s gaze.

Possibly one of the biggest complaints about the film is just that—Elvis’ life is told from another’s perspective. That other party is Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ long-time manager, played by Tom Hanks. As a result we get a biased narrator, sometimes comedically so, as they share their version of events which is sometimes at odds with what the audience might divulge from the action. Some fans might be upset with this choice because it shifts the narrative away from Elvis as a central character and instead also becomes a biography about Colonel Tom Parker. This is a common trend in Luhrmann’s films, where an outsider narrates the life of someone else as they try to look in, one which is also seen in Australia, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby.

This narrative choice is one that I don’t mind in this instance. By telling the story through Colonel Tom Parker’s gaze it allows Elvis to remain surrounded with an air of mystery. This is important considering there is still so much disbelief surrounding the man’s death, to the extent that the myths almost overshadow his life’s achievements. If the movie chose to present Elvis through more of a first person perspective, then it would also need to be confident in its portrayal of the last act, effectively presenting a definitive “answer”.

In terms of narrative structure, it makes a lot of sense to include Colonel Tom Parker in such a fashion. He’s a figure that was involved throughout most of Elvis’ career—in biopics it can be hard to find a common thread or anchor for its themes mainly because it’s natural for people to walk in and out of each other’s lives. In Elvis, Colonel Tom Parker operates as the main antagonist, frequently hindering the success of our main man. He’s not an ever-present force—there are other negative events throughout Elvis’ life that steer his decisions, though it’s more passive in nature. Literally there are several scenes where Elvis watches major world news events on television and reacts to them, but these moments feel lethargic in terms of action compared to the active force Colonel Tom Parker provides.

In this way, Elvis is not your standard biopic. Yet the heavy inclusion of Colonel Tom Parker’s dealings isn’t solely the film’s greatest criticism, rather there’s also dislike towards Tom Hanks’ portrayal. This is a weird comparison, but here we go: it reminds me of the complaints surrounding Call of the Wild where audiences either got used to the CGI dog within the first few minutes, or they were irked by it for the entirety of the film’s runtime. It’s a similar situation with Tom Hanks’ performance. The actor is stretching himself more than what we’ve seen from him as of late, and his non-distinct accent and overly characterized style (once again a trend that’s rather common in Luhrmann’s films) can be hard to immediately accept. It’s a rather bold and in-your-face performance, though personally my brother and I were able to adjust rather quickly, and after a minute we found ourselves believing the act. For other viewers, that may not happen; Tom Hanks continues to painfully stick out and ruins the entire film.

Tom Hanks isn’t consistent in his role as his accent tends to dip in and out. It’s a bit reminiscent of Tommy Wiseau where the voice just sounds “European”, although to be fair that untraceable quality is part of Parker’s character. There are some moments when he sells the role more than others, where Hanks completely disappears into the character. It’s also helped by some decent make up effects—Elvis and Parker are constantly being aged up and down, and it’s impressive how just a few subtle changes in hair and prosthetics can become incredibly effective in selling that slight progression of time. However, the film isn’t without a few pacing issues. The first and second act rapidly ascend through the years, whilst the third act slows down to a crawl. Elvis seems to age, although Lisa Marie Presley feels stagnant in comparison. It does feel like more years have passed than what actually is presented in the story, and this giant change of pace causes the last part of the film to drag, feeling as though a good ten or twenty minutes could have been dropped from the runtime.

For the most part though, the film does kick along nicely, once again helped by its editing and Colonel Tom Parker’s constant prodding and interference. The antagonist’s parasitic existence may present the film’s through line, but it’s not the only theme raised. Christians may find Elvis’ early years to be interesting. The film details Elvis’ Christian upbringing and how through poverty he found himself immersed within the Black community. In a scene where he sneaks into a church service, the life-altering inspiration he received from Gospel rock and Black culture is struck upon him, reminiscent of a strong visitation of the Holy Spirit. From then on, Elvis views his talent as a gift, as though his ambitions are divinely inspired and granted.

It can be difficult to initially reconcile Elvis’ supposedly God-given purpose with his on-stage antics, which is how the movie frames the King’s early years. On the surface level, this is a man that wiggled his hips in a salacious way sending all the onlooking women into a lustful tizzy. However, the film does extremely well in establishing the wider context, explaining that Elvis’ movements were an adaptation of Black culture, essentially bridging the gap between two races in a world that was focussed on keeping things segregated. Operating on this wider scope, it’s easier to witness God’s influence, though like many celebrities before and after him, Elvis is still a fallible man that succumbs to temptation. So whilst Christianity might be present within the story, this is certainly not a “Christian movie”. Although it is interesting to note that Elvis tends to be most successful and happy within his life when he remains true to his core vision and inspiration. In this way, Elvis comes across as a warning tale, preaching the dangers of straying too far or allowing bad influences into one’s life, whether that comes in the form of a vice or a person.

Elvis is an enlightening movie for those that are unfamiliar about the King. It details his greatest highs and lows, while also emphasizing the reasoning as to why he became famous in the first place. As someone that is part of that newbie demographic, I cannot comment as to how accurate the film is in its portrayal or whether some crucial details were omitted. Yet I entered Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman with the same amount of foreknowledge (i.e. none) and I must say that Elvis is the best out of the trio. The other two relied heavily on their use of music to the detriment of other narrative elements, whereas Elvis comes across as a biopic first, music second, albeit with some gutsy flair from its director. Aside from a few flaws here and there, it’s a strong flick that’s not only worth a look, but also a Best Actor win at next year’s Academy Awards.

Positives

+ Austin Butler
+ Direction
+ Editing
+ Focus on story over music

Negatives

- Tom Hanks
- Biography shares limelight with another character
- Use of split screen not always effective
- Pacing

The Bottom Line

Those with high expectations will find fault in Baz Luhrmann's version of Elvis' life, though most grievances are overcome by an amazing performance from Austin Butler.

 

8.2

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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