I fell a little out of love with Baz Luhrmann after seeing The Great Gatsby. I had adored Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge but his F. Scott Fitzgerald adaption made it clear that his flamboyant film making style didn’t suit everything. That famous story about showy appearances hiding the shallowness and emptiness of the people underneath unfortunately turned out to be the perfect metaphor for both the film and its director. Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge worked, conversely, because of the florid poetry and simple narrative of each respectively but there was just so much of the source material of Gatsby that got lost in the glitz.
I have to say that in the opening minutes I thought Elvis was going to suffer the same problem. Actually though Luhrmann’s cinematic sensibilities really suit this subject matter; Presley was more than anything a showman and because Luhrmann shares this trait the movie works. There are times in this biopic that rely on the drama in Presley’s life rather than the performances on stage and the film does wain a little at these points but these moments are more than compensated for by everything else.
You have to apply what I refer to as the Amadeus test to movies like this, named after Miloš Forman and Peter Shaffer’s Mozart film, where you measure if the true genius of the subject is captured and explained on screen. This most certainly passes; you definitely get a sense of why Elvis was so special.
I have heard it suggested that the film slows down as the man did but actually even the later shows that Elvis did in his 30s had a particular magnetism and all of it is brilliantly captured here. The way the performances are shown are wonderful. His very early appearances in the 50s seem to have an almost supernatural effect on the women watching which doesn’t feel very realistic but is effective storytelling shorthand and it works in context. Then his post war shows where he built on and compounded his legend and finally his Vegas appearances all demand attention here just as it is documented they did at the time. Sure, I’d have loved to have been around to see Elvis, but that not being possible I’m really glad to have seen Elvis.
Luhrmann and his party style are totally key to this but so, massively, is lead actor Austin Butler. Butler is utterly astonishing in this role. It isn’t quite his debut but he is certainly not a well known or a seasoned actor, yet the way he so effectively embodies a person that everyone does an impression of to some extent or another, including hundreds who make a career out of it*, is very impressive. Butler properly disappears into the character in a way that many couldn’t and you get the sense that this film that charts the rise of a great performer might also be charting the rise of another great performer. It is also credit to him and his director that the common expressions associated with the King, like ‘thank you very much’ and ‘Elvis has left the building’ feature and feel totally genuine. Many film makers might avoided the cliches but they include and own them.
*Kodi Smitt-McPhee appears in the film as what seems to be the very first Elvis impersonator.
Now I don’t know the other fifteen Elvis movies perfectly but it seems that this one also pays the best notice to the African American R&B origins of those incredible songs. (It wasn’t as much a part of Lilo & Stitch as it could have been.) It would have been nice for some of the other artists behind this sound to feature more prominently but Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B King and Alton Mason as Little Richard are highlights of the film.
There are other strong actors offering support but up until now I’ve not mentioned Tom Hanks. I’m not sure about his depiction of Col. Tom Parker, who is so much a part of the film as to arguably be the protagonist. Certainly his Parker wouldn’t have worked outside of Luhrmann’s take as he is at points almost a grotesque goblin, scraping up gold in the shadow of Elvis’ majesty. Others will disagree but there is no kindness in his character, any consideration of others always appears to be to his own ends, and it feels like a bit of a caricature. The fact that this is all a bit of a pantomime means this doesn’t jar too much but otherwise I think it would.
Everyone knows about the two women in Elvis’ life; Pricilla and his momma. One of them too old to be the companion he wanted and the other too young. Elvis was twenty four when he met and started dating his wife and she was ten years his junior. She was still only twenty eight when their six year marriage ended. All of this, like any of Elvis’ less celebrated characteristics, are glossed over in the film.
Mrs. Gladys Love Presley actually doesn’t figure as significantly even though Elvis’ love for her is made clear. She is a forthright and formidable presence but Luhrmann seems more interested in what she meant than who she was.
Pricilla fairs slightly better, being a more rounded character and always being in control of her situation. She is enamoured with her famous beau but unlike every other young white woman in the film she is not magically entranced, which both strengthens her and weakens all of them. Both women are demonstrably there to define the man.
The film is about this man though and in terms of his incredible cultural significance, if not his wider humanity, it does him justice. In the words of the man himself ‘that’s alright’.