Nobody ever goes to a Baz Luhrmann film expecting subtlety – and indeed, from its opening scene onwards, Elvis is a big, brash, noisy exploration of the late singer’s life and times. It’s also an excoriating account of the Faustian deal he made with his manager, the odious ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, that would keep Presley effectively shackled to him throughout his career. But make no mistake, the ensuing events provide a thrilling cinematic journey that powers through two hours and thirty-nine minutes at an invigorating gallop, flinging out dazzling visual flourishes and exciting musical routines as it goes. Some reviewers have complained about the film’s lack of ‘authenticity,’ but they’re surely missing the point. This is as much about Elvis’s legend as it is about his life.
We start in 1997, at the hospital bed of Parker (Tom Hanks, looking very convincingly fleshed out), who assures us that he has played no part in the untimely death of his most famous client. We then flash back in time to see Parker’s first encounter with Presley (Austin Butler) at a Hayride event in 1955, where the young singer’s onstage gyrations drive the local teenage girls into hysterics. Parker, a long established fairground huckster, smells an opportunity to make money – and promptly signs Presley up to a punishing contract.
Soon enough, Presley is selling records by the millions and can move his beloved mother, Gladys (Helen Thompson), and his ineffectual father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), into the big house that will become Graceland. Super-stardom beckons but Parker is determined that whatever transpires must happen on his terms – and all that sexy hip swivelling is drawing too much criticism, as is Elvis’s habit of hanging out with black musicians and assimilating their music into his own routines. Parker is all for dialling down the unbridled sexuality that brought Elvis to the public’s attention in the first place and turning him into a ‘family’ entertainer, but Presley is understandably reluctant to lose his edge…
Elvis is built around two outstanding performances. Hanks is wonderfully slimy as the manipulative Colonel Tom, playing his snake-oil charm to the hilt, but it’s Butler who deserves most of the praise, taking on the near impossible task of personifying an icon and succeeding on just about every level. He may not look exactly like Presley, but he somehow manages to nail the man’s persona and this goes way beyond impersonation, so much so that footage of the real Presley can be slipped in toward’s the film’s conclusion without causing a ripple.
I fully expect an Oscar nomination in due course.
With the passage of time, it’s easy to forget just how repressed and racist America was in the 1950s and the cataclysmic effect that Presley’s arrival had on popular culture. This serves as an eloquent reminder, sweeping us up and dropping us headfirst into those exhilarating waters. It becomes an increasingly heartbreaking journey; nevertheless, Luhrmann’s film serves as a powerful tribute to its illustrious subject. I describe few films as ‘unmissable’ but this one definitely qualifies.