If you’re heading into new movie Elvis seeking an extravaganza of the King’s music with the overindulgence of a Baz Luhrmann epic, you’ll probably get everything you wanted. Just go into it with the knowledge that Elvis Presley’s whirlwind life was an overwhelming blur and, for better or worse, so is the film.
Elvis is a kaleidoscopic fever dream of Presley’s early years, rise to fame, infamy and eventual demise. Through the eyes of his manipulative manager Colonel Tom Parker (played by), we watch the King of Rock’n’roll’s soaring highs, hard-hitting lows and undeniably iconic moments in a feast for the senses.
There’s no denying that Elvis is a compelling watch, with all the glitz and glamor you’d expect for a Presley biopic, but it skews more towards an ode to Luhrmann’s cinematic style than an ode to the King.
Luhrmann’s particular flavor of visual excess and filmmaking extravagance — familiar from 2013’s The Great Gatsby and 2001’s Moulin Rouge — overpower some of the poignant and painful moments of Elvis’ life. But if you can get past the dizziness and distraction of Luhrmann’s more outlandish choices, there really is a lot to love about the film.
White-hot star-in-the-making Austin Butler gives a tour de force performance as Elvis Presley, his own vocals blending with the King’s to create a multi-layered transition from the 1950s to Elvis’ final years. Given how many Elvis impersonators there are in the world, Butler’s ability to take on the role without falling into stereotype is admirable — as is his commitment to nailing Presley’s iconic moves and The Voice.
There’s been talk that it has actually affected the actor’s day-to-day speech because of his choice to go method for the entire two years of filming, but let’s be honest: if that’s the worst thing his method acting brings out in him, so be it.
The supporting cast provided mixed results, with Australian Olivia DeJonge a standout as an incredibly underrated and underutilized Priscilla Presley. Luhrmann regulars David Wenham and Richard Roxburgh are solid as always, but the surprise for me was Tom Hanks’ less than consistent portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker.
While the prosthetics do most of the heavy lifting, an inconsistent accent and caricature presence make it hard to suspend disbelief that we’re looking at anyone other than Tom Hanks in a fake nose. As a longtime Hanks fan, it’s hard for me to admit he’s easily the weakest link in the ensemble.
Ultimately, though, my biggest criticism is that the bloated run time made the pacing messy, with the last 40 minutes feeling twice as long as the first. At times it does feel like an excuse to showcase all the iconic Elvis costumes and songs, which is understandable — it’s largely why audiences will show up — but there’s so much of Elvis’ story missed out in favor of a more prismatic collage.
But if you can’t help falling in love with everything Elvis, rest assured there’s no shortage of memorable moments, outfits, smolders and songs. Word is that Priscilla Presley herself even congratulated Luhrmann and Butler and said the film brought her to tears — which you can’t deny is a hell of an endorsement.