Elvis. In the annals of history, there is no greater entertainer than the boy from Memphis, Tennessee who would transform himself into the King of Rock N Roll, and who changed the world when he took to the stage. Now Elvis Aaron Presley’s life is brought to the big screen in a spellbinding motion picture event from celebrated cinema auteur Baz Luhrmann in Elvis, and it’s utterly extraordinary.
The film chronicles the life and career of singer and actor Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), from his early days as a child to becoming a rock and roll and movie star, as well as his complex relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
When it comes to filmmakers they don’t come more flamboyant or visionary than Baz Luhrmann. His works, including Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, Australia and The Great Gatsby, speak for themselves in terms of narrative commitment and sheer visual spectacle, and now this cinema visionary turns his attention to capturing the energy and spirit of Elvis Presley in Elvis. And what a show it is. Under Luhrmann’s direction, every part of this film comes together. Narrative, casting, location, production design, costume design, set dressing, hair and make-up, cinematography, sound editing and one hell of a score. It’s a complete and utter event. Luhrmann gives everything of himself to capturing the life that belonged to Presley, and this film will draw out all of your emotions as you watch it.
Chronicling the entire lifespan of Elvis Presley from his early years as a teenager in Memphis to his final decline in Las Vegas, Elvis delivers its narrative from a very interesting point of difference from other biographical pictures. This is Elvis’s life told from the perspective of his long-time promoter Colonel Tom Parker. The villain of the story. And this narrative device makes for a very interesting frame to explore Presley’s life. This viewpoint provides a real edge to the narrative of Elvis and is a sign of Luhrmann’s absolute control of cinematic drama. As a cinematic experience, Elvis is rich in visual splendour, and is what I would describe as an ‘Americana Opera’. It’s lavish and colourful and gripped with a strong presentation of glamour and sex appeal. Watching Elvis is an absolute rush, and you’ll be gripped minute by minute by this story of the boy from Memphis who by strumming his guitar learned to fly.
While Baz Luhrmann might have had the vision for this film, Elvis finds its voice, presence and soul in Austin Butler, a young performer of fantastic talent. And Butler gives one of the all-time great performances in this picture. When you look upon Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, you’re not seeing an actor, you’re seeing Elvis. Devoting over three years of his life to the role of Presley, Butler brings a soulful and present performance to The King. Butler does the astonishing feat of bringing out the man behind the icon. Breathtakingly handsome and full of strut, Butler is the x-factor defined as Presley in this film. As a performer, Butler exists moment by moment in the character of Presley and presents a full portrait of Presley as performer, husband and father. While Luhrmann’s film is wrapped in the icon of Elvis, it’s the soul of this man that shines through, and it’s Butler’s commitment to Elvis that ensures this.
Playing off of Butler’s Elvis is two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks in the role of the film’s narrator, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker. And Hanks makes for a marvellous theatrical villain in this piece. As a quick-thinking carny who is always searching for a new act to make a sucker out of the rubes, Hanks’s Parker seeks out the young Presley like a predator and soon has him gripped in a vice of his own making. Hanks’ Parker is a user of the young Presley and through Luhrmann’s presentation, he’s a complete villain. But Parker’s a complex man, and while he finds a good thing with Presley, he also cares for and loves this young man and there’s a deeply paternal side to his actions. We see Hanks toil with these extremes of thoughts and emotions concerning Presley, and it gives the picture much of its drama.
Luhrmann’s Elvis is a complete portrait of the singers’ life and the turbulent eras that he came to define and then re-define in the process. From the mid-1950s to the late 1970s we see Elvis’ stratospheric rise and shocking decline in full four-colour detail. Along for the ride are an eclectic group of characters including his notorious entourage, The Memphis Mafia, and his one true love Pricilla, who is portrayed on screen in an impressive performance by Olivia DeJonge. As Elvis’ confidant, conscience and lover, DeJonge is a revelation as Priscilla and we witness the complex, and at times turbulent life, that they shared. DeJonge and Butler have terrific chemistry and DeJonge showcases the deep love and care that Pricilla felt for Elvis and the sorrow that she experienced in watching the decline that followed him in the early 70s. They say that a man is only as strong as the woman he loves, and Priscilla was Elvis’ everything, and DeJonge’s performance is a tribute to this incredible woman.
From start to finish, Elvis is an utter piece of art come to life. Made with peak creativity, and Luhrmann’s trademark flamboyant style, this is a picture that your eyes will be transfixed on, and you won’t want to look away. The imagery has immense flair and energy and this Americana Opera is bright, opulent and bursting with life. From the blues-influenced groove of Beale Street and Memphis to Presley’s conquest of Hollywood, his bold and groundbreaking comeback special in 1968 to the gilded, sparkling cage of Las Vegas that he’s finally locked away in, Luhrmann captures it all as only he can. Elvis is a pure spectacle and there’s a showman quality to Luhrmann’s presentation of it that I believe Presley would deeply have admired. As an artist, he was a man who left everything on stage and Luhrmann does the same thing in this picture. The audience comes first in Elvis and the spectacle before our eyes is immense.
This bold and striking style applies to every part of the film and playing into this fairy tale is the film’s beautiful costuming and the masterful eye of Luhrmann’s frequent collaborator and wife Catherine Martin. And her work on Elvis is perfect. In a special collaboration with Prada and Miu Miu, Martin recreates the style of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with complete glamour and spectacle. And after watching Elvis you’ll be reaching out for your blue suede shoes. As an exercise in filmmaking, Elvis is a product of picturesque artistry and clear attention to detail. Every member of the cast and crew gave 110% dedication to this production, and this level of care and love for The King and his story shines through in every frame. It’s just spectacular.
When talking Elvis, you can’t skip past the music, and Elvis will have you grooving out in your seat. Taking The King’s list of accomplished hits and remixing it with modern artists including the likes of Doja Cat, Eminem and CeeLo Green, Swae Lee and Diplo, Kacey Musgraves, Jack White, Nardo Wick and Måneskin, keeps the experience fresh. My favourite scenes revolved around Elvis’ life in Beale Street, where Elvis’ life started and the music is rocking in these moments. Along with the artists who assisted the film, praise must also be heaped on Austin Butler himself and his silky smooth voice is transcendent as he samples the King’s hits and melds his voice with Presley. Nailing all of the King’s songs in perfect rendition, Butler’s vocalisations are another way for him to connect with the spirit of Presley and in these moments when he is singing on stage he reaches that transcendent place of expressing who Elvis truly was.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been this animated in a cinema and I can clarify that I was feeling my groove with Elvis. This is an extraordinary film of immense passion, creativity and pure showmanship. It’s an event-level movie that will touch your soul with its love and devotion to its subject. The experience that I felt watching Elvis is the reason why we choose to go to the movies and this picture is a testament and tribute to the man who would be The King of Rock N Roll.
Image: Warner Brothers Pictures