I grew up listening to old crooners–Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, etc.–as those were my late mother’s favorites. But one singer that she was a huge fan of was Elvis Presley, who left those crooners sidelined when he shook up the world of pop music in the early 50s. I’m not sure how many films have been made about the King of Rock and Roll, but as far as a full biopic from the time he was a poor Southern kid to a full-blown mega-star, this musical drama by Baz Luhrmann is certainly the most ambitious.
I said to my hubby after the film that Baz should change his name to Bling Luhrmann. Clearly diamonds are also Mr. Luhrmann’s best friend. He loves the bling-bling, glitz, and glamor of the rich and famous, as evident in just the opening credits alone, reminiscent of the one in the equally glitzy The Great Gatsby. In any event, the film’s protagonist’s journey is traced from his humble origins in Tupelo, Mississippi, practically ‘christened’ in a gospel tent. His early musical influence was That’s All Right by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup as pre-teen Elvis (Chaydon Jay) peeked inside a juke joint and witness Black folks dancing and moving to the music. It was practically a religious experience and that influence left a mark on his life.
It’s quite a perfect timing that this film opens a week after Juneteenth was celebrated, given the heavy influence of African-American blues and Christian gospel on his music. Luhrmann also highlights Elvis’ close friendship with Black artists, including the King of the Blues himself, B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). In fact, the first time Parker heard Elvis on the radio along with country singer Hank Snow (an unrecognizable David Wenham), he thought Elvis was black.
The biopic primarily centers on the tumultuous relationship between Elvis and his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). I personally have never even heard how Parker speaks, nor even know that the Dutchman was neither a colonel or named Tom, so Hanks’ accent here sounds pretty weird. In any case, the movie starts with him as an old man nearing the end of his life, telling the story of when he met Elvis and subsequently ‘made’ him the mega-star we know today.
One thing I can say with absolute confidence is that Austin Butler is perfectly cast as Elvis. I’m glad he was chosen instead of the more well-known names who auditioned, such as Harry Styles, Miles Teller. Butler’s got the looks of a matinee idol, but it’s more than that… it’s that charisma, the undeniable star quality. Luhrmann is a visualist and he sure knows how to create a memorable entrance for his star… I remember how mesmerizing Nicole Kidman was the first time Satine first appeared in Moulin Rouge. In the same way, Butler’s first performance as Elvis is equally spellbinding. ‘He sacrificed Elvis the man and Elvis the god was born…’ Col. Parker’s VO said as he watched countless girls and grown women all fell under his spell.
Butler’s performance is nothing short of hypnotic. It transcends mere impersonation; his portrayal is an astute interpretation that captures Elvis’ charisma, talent, and most importantly, his soul. It’s nice to actually have the actor do his own singing too, which always adds to the film’s authenticity. All the makeup did an amazing job to make Butler resemble Elvis, but the most important part is that the actor embodies the character… he never forgets the humanity beneath the mythical star. It’s a committed, Oscar-worthy performance that I hope will gain traction all through next year’s award season.
Hanks still manage to deliver a good performance but I wouldn’t say it’s his best work. All that prosthetics can be quite distracting, and there’s that weird accent. The quieter moments between him and Elvis are the most memorable. There’s one where they are atop the ferris wheel at a local fair. He proposed to represent Elvis, asking him ‘Are you ready to fly Mr. Presley?’ to which he replied ‘I’m ready, ready to fly.’ Another one is when Elvis was mourning his mother whom he loved dearly. As they say, it’s lonely at the top… and there are few people who reached such career high as Elvis did.
As for the rest of the supporting performances, Australian actress Olivia DeJonge is stunning as Priscilla. Her character stays mostly in the background, though she does get her time to shine in a few emotional moments towards the end. Helen Thomson is quite memorable as Elvis’ mom Gladys who’s torn between being proud of her son’s success and resentful of the effect of his stratospheric fame and fortune. Luhrmann’s regular Richard Roxburgh (so memorable as the Duke in Moulin Rouge!) doesn’t get to do too much here as Elvis’ father, while Kodi Smit-McPhee and Luke Bracey appear briefly as Jimmy Rodgers Snow and talent manager Jerry Schilling, respectively.
Luhrmann clearly has a special affinity for the subject matter and in a way, Elvis’ bedazzled lifestyle seems like a natural choice for a director known for his flamboyant directing style. I’ve enjoyed the Aussie filmmaker’s exuberance, signature bright colors and feverish camera movements in his previous films, but Elvis is Luhrmann on steroids. The cinematography is beautiful, courtesy of Aussie DP Mandy Walker, but the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach had me close my eyes a few times in the theater just to rest from the sensory overload. Perhaps he was trying to get us to feel the dizzying effect Elvis had on his fans by disorienting the viewers, but it was too much for an overlong 2 hours and 39 minutes.
After all that spectacle, the script Luhrmann co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner, and Craig Pearce only skims the surface of who Elvis was. His musical influence through history goes faster than a half-hour ‘drunk history’ timeline video on YouTube. The impact of Beatlemania on his career is a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. I’m curious to see how a more restrained filmmaker would do with this material… I mean you’ve already got a larger than life historical figure AND the perfect actor to portray him, but instead of making it a character-driven piece, Luhrmann overloads the movie with too much frills as if he didn’t really trust that Elvis was interesting enough of a subject matter.
It’s a testament to Butler’s star power and charisma that somehow he didn’t get overpowered by Luhrmann’s overly-stylized direction. He looks fabulous in all the bejeweled get-up, thanks to the spectacular costume design work from four-time Oscar-winner Catherine Martin who also did the movie’s production design. It’s a good thing he’s on screen practically 90% of the time as he’s the only one who kept me engaged. Had Elvis been played by a less charismatic actor, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the movie as much as I did. So because of Butler’s performance, I’m going to be more generous in my rating because he literally saves the movie for me. If I were to rate the movie alone based on Luhrmann’s direction, it’d be more of a 1 out of 5 stars.
Elvis may not get the chance to make A Star Is Born, but a star IS born with Austin Butler playing Elvis.