'Elvis' Gives His Legacy Extra Wiggle

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Richard Roxburgh, Helen Thomson, Gary Clark Jr.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jun 23, 2022


What's so shocking about Elvis Presley anyway? His hip-waggling dance moves seem tame by contemporary standards, and his music is fairly soft and pleasant. Looking back with a modern perspective, he seems more quaint than subversive.

If there was anyone who could give Elvis some sizzle, surely it's Baz Luhrmann, whose decidedly non-faithful approach to prestige projects like Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby displayed a preference for pizzazz over plausibility. He mostly succeeds with Elvis, a glitzy epic that captures the frenzy around its subject while barely even trying to humanize him.

Rather than try to offer much insight into the man behind the myth, Elvis follows his career through the eyes of manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks doing a slapstick, Goldmember-esque Dutch accent), a carnival huckster with a shadowy past and no military connections. Parker discovers a young Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) after the singer's early Sun Records singles become regionally popular in the South. Borrowing (or possibly even stealing) Black R&B, Presley puts a white face on music that was previously seen as taboo in segregated America — plus, his hip-wagglin' drives the girls wild.

What could easily be a predictable story of triumph against the odds is given a fantastical spin by Luhrmann. Presley's music here is portrayed with feedback-spiked energy of garage rock, and, combined with a score that includes hip-hop and sweeping orchestrations, Luhrmann throws decades of music history into a blender, emphasizing what it must have felt like to see Elvis in the early '50s, rather than what it actually sounded like.

Where many musical biopics focus on one period of an artist's career, ELVIS covers pretty much the whole thing. Flashbacks in the film's not-entirely-linear narrative show a young Elvis becoming fascinated with soul music, both in its religious and decidedly secular forms. We follow him through the shock-and-awe of his early period, his stint in the Army, his Hollywood films, the Christmas special, his Vegas residencies and his bleak decline. Even with a runtime of two and a half hours, it's a lot of ground to cover — particularly when Luhrmann gives so much screen time to stylized animations, musical numbers, and the Colonel's wheelings and dealings.

We see Elvis hit his pill-popping bottom, give into the temptations of fame, mourn the death of Martin Luther King and eventually wake up to his manager's shadiness — and yet, despite Austin Butler shedding plenty of tears along the way, Luhrmann never really shows who Elvis truly is. What drove his boundary-pushing rebellious streak? What was torturing him that made him compelled to numb himself with pills? Elvis looks at how the industry drove him to ruin without exploring much below the surface.

Then again, no one really looks to Luhrmann for deep emotional insights, and the electrifying Elvis succeeds in conveying the excitement that audiences felt when he first wiggled his way across the stage all those decades ago.


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