Full disclosure. I am not an Elvis Presley fan. I don't care much for his music, and he was not a big part of my life (or of those around me when I was tot). But I completely acknowledge his talent level, the precedent he set for super-stardom, and his place in music history.
Elvis is now a movie. It's a Baz Luhrmann production. And while not usually the case for me, this works in the movie's favor. Lurhman, whose movies work more like incredibly long music videos (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge, or Romeo and Juliet), and are more of an artistic stab at the idea of something. They're not historical pieces. I think that's the only way you can capture the phenomenon of Elvis.
Told through the narration of his controversial business manager Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), we learn of Elvis Aaron Presley's humble beginnings in Mississippi and Memphis. Elvis (Austin Butler) gets his influences from country, gospel music of his church, and the African American R&B of Beale Street. What follows is an examination of his meteoric rise to fame through raw showmanship, salacious gyrations, and the guidance of former carnival man Parker. Lurhman takes us through the odd transformation to obese, drug-addicted, Vegas freak show.
Barely showing his face and playing his music sparingly at first, this movie gives an honest handshake to all the musical influences. And like the teenage girls at every show, it leaves us wanting more of him. Like a slow burn, Butler's portrayal of The King is magnetic and charismatic. At every turn, he made me believe Elvis could be (1) this entertainment wild child, (2) an all too loyal friend, and (3) a momma's boy all rolled into one young man. No small task.
The role of manager (and caretaker) falls to Tom Hanks. His heavy prosthetics look great, but his horrible accent distracts every moment. We hear him narrate every pivotal point in the King's career. I find it odd that I can believe Butler as Elvis more than I can swallow Hanks as Parker. With every turn, Hank's Parker sounds like Tom Hank's doing a terrible accent. I wonder if America's actor is too famous for this role?
Playing a surprisingly small role in this film is his childhood sweetheart-turned wife and mother of his child, Priscilla (Olivia DeJong). She quickly realizes that their love can't compete with the love of his fans and she leaves him alone with the Colonel. Bad idea.
With the frenetic pace of a modern music video, Burhman joyfully speeds us through EAP's rise to megastardom. Driven by a relentless need to perform the music (and moves) that make him happy, he's fighting with Parker who wants him to be a safer "fine, young American boy". Parker (and others) ride him like a mule to keep performing. The result is a drug-addicted Elvis vs the debt-ridden obligations of Colonel Parker to keep the money flowing in.
There's an interesting decision by Lurhman to change the look of the film entirely once Priscilla and Lisa Marie leave him. It goes from 4K UHD brilliance to grainy film stock until the end of the movie. Is this to make us believe we're seeing actual historical footage of Elvis? Is it to show how blurry life got when he entered the drug-riddled, fat Elvis stage? Is it to cover up bad prosthetics?
For a non-Elvis fan, I liked using his music and image scarcely at first. The Elvis "brand" doesn't get in the way of the story. As we see and hear him more, it mirrors the publics' growing exposure to his one-of-a-kind phenomenon. The pacing and musical tapestry move the story along swimmingly, allowing a non-Elvis fan to enjoy the ride.
For anyone who did not know the Elvis "thing" firsthand, this movie takes you on a journey of understanding. His role in pop history is understood through today's lens. This sure beats an Elvis look-alike entertaining Grandma in a nursing home.
Austin Butler is tremendous and should be lauded for taking on the role of a lifetime. He does so effectively and with a magnetism that is undeniable. Hanks brings his usual, strong, and steady skills. Too bad that accent is like a stain on one of his ties. Baz Lurhman has created probably the best Baz Lurhman project of his over-the-top career.
And I don't care for Elvis. So that's saying something. Elvis hits theaters June 24th.