Elvis made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It opens in theaters June 24.
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis tells the story of the King of Rock & Roll at the speed of light, as jittery and alive with energy as young Presley himself was when he’d take the stage back in the 1950s and gyrate the crowd into a frenzy. There are times when that is absolutely the best approach— even with some notable omissions from his life story, there is a lot covered here — but Luhrmann’s film would have benefited from stopping to catch its breath more than it does. It’s that inconsistency and occasionally troubled pacing that prevents Elvis from reaching the dizzying heights it’s striving for, but, as a lifelong Elvis fan, this heartfelt take asks the right questions about its subject and makes it clear why Elvis’ contribution to American pop culture remains so lasting and important.
At the center of it all is a star-making, Oscar-worthy performance by Austin Butler, who nails Presley’s voice (he does a lot of his own singing in the ‘50s sequences and is quite good!) and mannerisms, even if his resemblance to Elvis varies at times. Butler is not going for mimicry here. There’s a light behind his eyes that reveals an intense immersion in Elvis the man; it’s almost cliche to say an actor is channeling the real person they’re playing, but Butler’s nuanced, human portrayal captures the lip-curling superficial elements one expects to see from Elvis while also revealing the passionate dreamer and ultimately broken soul inside him. Hopefully, Butler won’t be overlooked come awards time as Rocketman’s Taron Egerton was.
It must be noted that Elvis himself isn’t the entry point to his own movie. No, Elvis the film is largely a two-hander between Butler’s Presley and a prosthetics-laden Tom Hanks as his longtime manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker. This story begins and (sort of) ends with Parker, a shifty con-man with a mysterious past whose hold on Elvis is the main subject of scrutiny here. How did this slovenly carnival barker get his hooks so deeply into one of the biggest stars of the 20th century? And why did Elvis stay with him even when he wanted him gone so that his career could soar even higher?
There are several answers explored here but the Colonel’s ability to snow people — he is referred to as “the snowman” several times, even by Elvis — is fully on display as he manipulates Elvis’ emotions and desire to never return to the poverty from which he came. While his Bond villain-esque accent grows wearisome (the real Colonel didn’t speak like that), there’s a (spoilerish) reason for it and Hanks excels at playing this conniving character out to achieve his own American Dream. Elvis as merchandising machine (and Parker’s meal ticket) is at times amusingly explored, such as when Parker convinces Elvis they should sell “I Hate Elvis” buttons (why should anyone else profit from disliking him?). Casting Hanks — America’s Dad and keeper of the Baby Boomer flame — as the cunning antagonist in a film about America set across the same decades that Forrest Gump covered proves a deliciously subversive move.
Every Elvis Actor Ever
Since the film is framed around Parker, we don’t get a full-on look at adult Elvis until later in Act One. There are glimpses of him from afar and snippets of his voice, but we, like Parker, don’t see Elvis in full until he takes the stage at the Louisiana Hayride and sends the women in the audience into a sexual frenzy. The (at that time) vulgar and shocking nature of it all immediately captures Parker, an old carnival barker who knows a profitable freak show when he sees it.
Because it spans a few decades (from the mid-‘40s to the mid-‘70s), Luhrmann — never a storyteller to dilly-dally too long in any scene — steers his film like a Mystery Train that could derail at any moment. Thankfully, it doesn’t, but that breakneck speed doesn’t leave much time to emotionally take stock of certain major events, such as the death of Elvis’ beloved mother, Gladys (a melancholy, anxious Helen Thomson). We witness the aftermath of her death but for the worst tragedy of Elvis’ life, her actual demise is handled in as much time as a commercial break.
Outside of Elvis and the Colonel, most of the other characters are thinly sketched, including father Vernon Presley (Moulin Rouge!’s Richard Roxburgh) and wife Priscilla (whose courtship is sped through probably to dodge the problematic nature of a grown man becoming involved with a minor). As Priscilla, Olivia DeJonge gets a few decent scenes later in the film, but there’s not really as much depth given to Priscilla’s relationship with Elvis as is deserved. Stranger Things’ Dacre Montgomery, however, gets a decent amount of screen time as Steve Binder, the TV director who helmed the 1968 Comeback Special that restarted Elvis’ musical career and restored him to his badass rocker roots after a long spell in lame Hollywood movie vehicles.
The Comeback Special also allows for a fair degree of humor as Parker assures network execs it is actually a Christmas special and that Elvis will wear a gaudy sweater and sing wholesome Yuletide tunes (he doesn’t). This and an earlier ‘50s sequence where Elvis defies a police warning to not so much as wiggle his pinkie onstage showcase Elvis as a rebel trying to break free from the softening of his image by the Colonel, who wants to rebrand him as a wholesome, All-American family entertainer (Elvis’ stints in the US Army and Hollywood eventually accomplish that). But even when Elvis wins (against the Colonel’s wishes), he ultimately loses – and that’s the tragedy at the heart of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
I’ve seen every movie and miniseries ever made about Elvis Presley and have always been frustrated at how much they neglected to address the role that Black culture and music played in his personal and professional development — as well as how dangerous Elvis was considered to be back then for crossing racial boundaries and challenging the sexual mores of the segregated 1950s. Not so in Luhrmann’s film, which gives Black artists’ contributions to American music and to Elvis himself a far greater role than they have ever had before in any prior project about him. It is long overdue and, hopefully, many of these Black artists and musical trailblazers will also get the big-screen biopic treatment they deserve.
The likes of B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Big Mama Thornton all appear as characters in the film, while the soundtrack includes modern remixes and new music by artists such as Doja Cat to make the linkage across generations and cultures clearer to modern viewers of all races. Elvis the film — which was produced with consent from the Presley estate — is certainly operating as a response to the long and widely held view that Elvis simply stole Black music and profited from it.
Luhrmann’s film takes pains to show Elvis’ upbringing as a poor white kid living among poor African Americans in Tupelo, Mississippi, and how Black juke joints and gospel music revivals hooked him at a tender age. This film’s Elvis clocks in a lot of time on Memphis’ Beale Street (“the Home of the Blues”) and at the Handy Club, where he openly acknowledges the talents and influences Black artists have had on him.
If anything, Elvis the movie almost over-corrects in its attempt to reframe Elvis within the era of the Civil Rights Movement. You would think he marched with MLK but he didn’t. Elvis himself never wrote a memoir, never did an in-depth Rolling Stone interview or a Dick Cavett talk show appearance like many other stars of that era did. His story has been told by everyone else and much discourse has formed to fill in the holes in the narrative of his personal views. Luhrmann’s film, however, might lead one to assume Elvis was far less conservative than he was. (Elvis, after all, once traveled to the White House by himself to ask President Nixon for a federal narcotics agent badge for his personal collection so he could play his part in the war on drugs.)
The film wonderfully showcases Elvis’ love of music, presenting it as his first true love (as much as he yearns to also be a great actor). Butler deftly conveys that passion and glee Elvis felt for music, particularly when he’s seen conducting his band to deliver just the right level of near-ecclesiastical fervor he needs in order to perform at his best. The artist element of Elvis has often been glossed over in the many biopics made about him. While even more of that would’ve been appreciated here, at least Luhrmann’s instincts prove right in showing the influence music, in general, had on Elvis and what it truly meant to him as a form of expression. (The film also nicely plays up Elvis’ love of comic books, making him into an OG fanboy.)
Everything from Elvis’ dance moves and specific mannerisms to the clothing he wore in iconic photos is meticulously replicated here. Ditto Memphis’ Beale Street and the stage of the Vegas Hilton (although his home, Graceland, isn’t shown quite as much as might be expected). Much of the film is set on the road, especially in the last half as Elvis’ incessant touring, drug use, and divorce from Priscilla take a hefty toll on him. Luhrmann and his team deserve kudos for their near-slavish attention to detail throughout, something non-Elvis fans may take for granted but those of us who have watched the ‘68 Comeback Special or Elvis: That’s the Way It Is multiple times will surely appreciate its precision and fidelity.
Elvis’ drug-addled downfall arrives late in the film. Although his drug usage is first hinted at in a scene set in the ‘50s, it’s not until the end stages — when his place as a long-standing Vegas attraction has been sealed like a tomb — that we see Elvis the TV set-shooting, lyrics-slurring, hothead emerge. Presley’s actual drug usage had been happening for a long time before that but scenes of the Colonel and Elvis’ personal physician “Dr. Nick” doing whatever it takes to make sure he stays on tour and taking the stage in Vegas ultimately prove heartbreaking as Elvis resigns himself to blacking out windows to keep out the sunlight, hiding behind dark glasses, and letting uppers and downers dictate his daily behavior. It makes for an ultimately tragic story, not that dying at 42 years old allows much room for an upbeat conclusion.