What to Watch Verdict
For all its flaws, Luhrmann’s portrait of The King is a must-see.
Butler’s charismatic performance
Compelling and magnetic
Big screen nostalgia
The soundtrack (a hypnotic mix of old and new)
Not all its risks pay off
Hanks’ hammy Colonel Parker
With his fortieth birthday on the horizon, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) is tormented by the thought that he’ll amount to nothing. We all know he needn’t have worried, that decades after his death his influence on popular culture is as strong as ever. Which makes him the perfect subject for a musical biopic. However, in Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann has loftier ambitions than simply telling the life story of the biggest musical icon of the 20th century. As you would expect.
A showman's film about two other showmen, his version of the rock ‘n’ roll legend — the country upbringing, musical influences, rise to fame, military service, marriage to Priscilla and his much-publicized decline — is told through the eyes of the film's other central character, Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
This means that as well as watching the landmarks in Elvis’ life punctuated by a catalog of his greatest hits — and there are many — we’re also taken inside the relationship between the two men, one where the control was almost always in Parker's hands. We’re shown that his superstar client was little more than a money-making machine feeding his gambling addiction. In today’s parlance, it’s nothing short of toxic.
Luhrmann’s choice of narrator is perplexing. Given Parker’s compulsion to control his charge and everything in his world, at first sight, it’s surprising he allows us to see the moments when Presley rebels and tries to break free. But he’s manipulating us, in the same way as he does The King, showing that his client simply can’t do anything without him. Except we see something different. Choosing somebody as unpleasant as Parker to tell the story is risky and it doesn’t always pay off. His sometimes whispered commentary attributes the singer’s descent into drugs to an addiction to the love he received from his fans — in other words, it’s all our fault and Parker had nothing to do with it.
Riskiest of all is the casting of Hanks, playing very much against his Mr Nice Guy type. Buried underneath a mass of prosthetics and with an accent that attempts to echo Parker’s Dutch origins but ends up sounding downright creepy, it’s an over-the-top performance that, despite the extravagancies of the production, feels out of place. Lurking in the shadows and peering round corners like a malevolent goblin, he strikes a note of artifice at odds with the rest of the film.
In contrast, Austin Butler is outstanding as Elvis in a performance guaranteed to make him a 24-carat star. (For those who didn't already know and love him from his work on The Carrie Diaries or The Shannara Chronicles.) He captures (most of) the charisma of The King, his love of family and of gospel and blues music and his close connection with the black music scene of his Southern childhood. Butler takes us inside a complex, hugely talented man who you readily accept, weaknesses included. The film appears to be not so much for fans of The King, but for a new generation, the one that doesn’t remember him and perhaps has never heard of him. For them, it’s a great introductory course — the songs are all there and the hero is attractive — but Elvis devotees will turn up in droves to see this as well and immerse themselves in the large slices of big-screen nostalgia.
This is not just a biopic, pure and simple because Luhrmann's other ambition was to use Presley’s story to paint a picture of some of the most turbulent years in American history. Yet that turns out to be very much in second place, taking a selective view of the major events in his lifetime and using them to show his impact on audiences at the time. The rise of teen culture and the associated moral panic that created, segregation and political assassinations are given the most prominence, but there is so much missing and Luhrmann’s aim in this instance is off-kilter.
Luhrmann’s flamboyant, visual style hasn’t left him, however. And, even if there are times when he over-uses split screens to the point of irritation, the overall effect is vibrant, full of strong images and overflowing with energy. The flaws are there for all to see — the first half feels bloated, while there’s a rush towards the finish line in the latter sequences — yet, despite all that, your eyes never leave the screen or drift towards your watch. Elvis is magnetically compelling. Just like The King himself.
Elvis is released theatrically on Friday, June 24.
For news on all the big movies out this year see our guide to new movies in 2022.
More Elvis movie content
- Meet the Elvis cast — who’s who in Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis movie biopic
- Elvis movie review: we can't help falling in love with Austin Butler's King
- Why did Harry Styles miss out on the role of Elvis?
- The Elvis movie trailer has dropped and here’s what we learned.
Freda can't remember a time when she didn't love films, so it's no surprise that her natural habitat is a darkened room in front of a big screen. She started writing about all things movies about eight years ago and, as well as being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic, is a regular voice on local radio on her favorite subject.
While she finds time to watch TV as well — her tastes range from Bake Off to Ozark — films always come first. Favourite film? The Third Man. Top ten? That's a big and complicated question .....!