Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner
Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge, Luke Bracey, Natasha Bassett, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Dacre Montgomery, Leon Ford
Screened at: AMC Century City, LA, 6/22/22
Opens: June 24th, 2022
Any biopic needs a good angle from which to tell its story. It may simply involve starting with the birth of its protagonist and then charting the journey they take throughout their lives. But in most cases the action begins well into their careers and showcases them at either a high or low point which is then further explained by a good deal of exposition and flashbacks to earlier formative moments. Elvis takes an interesting approach, having another person narrate the story of the world’s most famous singer and attempt repeatedly to co-opt his success and claim it as his own.
That man is Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who starts out as a carnival organizer who prides himself on his ability to act as a “snow” man, tricking people into giving up their money and leaving with a smile on their faces. He is taken with the extremely popular Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), a country singer with deep influences from the Black community which he grew up with who has the ability to make girls go crazy when he moves his hips and legs. Parker worms his way into Elvis’ life, giving him and his family the illusion that they’re in control when he’s actually pulling all the strings to carve out the best possible route to wealth and luxury for himself.
To assign responsibility for the trajectory of Elvis’ career, good and bad, to Parker is essentially required based on the way this film portrays events, with Parker seen wearing a hospital gown in an empty casino as he cries out to the audience not to blame him for Elvis’ premature death but instead laud him for all he did to help him. The way the camera follows Parker and his predatory grin does often make it feel like he and not Elvis is the main character, especially as Elvis’ health takes a turn when Parker pushes him to keep going towards the end of his career.
Even if Parker has an outsized role that might mirror his real-life meddling in Elvis’ life, the real star of this film is Elvis and Butler, an actor primarily with TV credits to his name. Butler is a true breakthrough, once who conveys the less self-assured early years of his fame and then leans into the excess of his later performances, always maintaining the same passion that defines all of his on-stage moments, regardless of the exhaustion or drugs that might have threatened to interfere with his ability to be himself.
Excess is a good way to describe this cinematic outing from director Baz Luhrmann. There is no one cinematic style at play, with title cards dropped in on top of frames and time and space fully moldable to each specific moment. It’s a dizzying experience, one that should manage to draw in audiences for its lengthy two hour and 39-minute runtime. Its time-jumping and inventive directorial approach may put off some viewers, though it would certainly be difficult to argue that this is a straightforward story with no creative effort, so Luhrmann does deserve credit for finding a new way to bring someone so famous to the screen.
It’s also an interesting choice to have someone almost as famous as Elvis and far more universally well-liked take on the role of the clear villain. Hanks, who has played against type before in films like Road to Perdition and The Ladykillers, dons an indiscernible accent and a great deal of makeup to play the much heavier Parker, who almost never does something without thinking of his own gain. While Hanks’ presence may be distracting, there’s so much going on in this spectacle that he’s far from the only focus. There is an abundance of color, costumes, and spectacular music here that it’s hard to find something not to like, but it’s all assembled in such an often jarring and uneven way that it’s just as hard to emerge feeling entirely satisfied.
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B