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edge staff writer


Hail to the King – ‘Elvis’

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There are few mainstream filmmakers who offer the degree of stylistic audacity that you get from Baz Luhrmann. The Australian director has made a career our of crafting visually arresting films that luxuriate in their own aesthetic extremity.

So I suppose it only makes sense that he would tackle the King.

“Elvis” is the latest project from the Aussie auteur. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, Luhrmann has imprinted his own vision on the story of one Elvis Presley. Powered by the standard over-the-top visuals – particularly at the onset – and driven by an electrifying performance from Austin Butler as the man himself, the movie offers a look at the man who would become a myth. All of it through the lens of the man who helped him get there even as he helped himself, the promoter Colonel Tom Parker (brought to life by Tom Hanks).

Call it “The King and the Kingmaker.”

It is a dazzling spectacle, to be sure – fitting the larger-than-life subject at its center – but it is also a look at the complicated and often toxic dynamic between the rock and roll icon and the carny-turned-music promoter who ostensibly assisted him on his rise to the top.

We kick things off with the film’s framing device. An aged and bedridden Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) lies slowly decaying in Las Vegas in the late 1990s. His physical frailty is belied by his vigorous denial that anything about his relationship with Elvis was untoward – a classic case of protesting too much.

And then, well … it’s the story of Elvis.

From his hardscrabble beginnings as a young man, Elvis Presley was enamored of music. His influences were legion, though the two largest were gospel and rhythm and blues. Those influences lead to him becoming a musician who weds them and creates something different. And when Parker hears one of those early records on the radio, he sees the future. Parker seeks out the young singer and convinces him to let Parker become his manager.

What follows is a meteoric rise to stardom, albeit one that is marked by no little controversy. Even as Elvis captures the minds and imaginations of the young, the establishment views him as a threat, a corrupter of the young. Parents and politicians protest his music; some have murkier motivations than others.

Parker suggests that time in the service might clear up the young singer’s image. Elvis’s time in Germany sees seismic change in his personal life – he meets young Priscilla Beaulieu (Olivia DeJonge), who would become his wife; his beloved mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) passes away – before returning to the States to continue his ascent.

We blur through a stretch of making increasingly less successful films and concert appearances, with Colonel Tom maintaining tight control over Elvis’s career. The King chafes under Parker’s domination of his life; he seeks to be more thoughtful and outspoken, while Parker demands that he simply play the game. Even when he throws off the yoke with his choices during his famed 1968 comeback special, he can’t seem to escape the clutches of Parker.

Elvis descends into substance abuse, even as he finds himself locked into a residency at a Las Vegas casino. He wants to tour internationally, but Parker resists the idea for reasons of his own. The spiral continues, and while there are some creative highlights – the sequence where Elvis works through the initial arrangements for the Vegas show alone is worth the price of admission – he ultimately struggles. And despite his efforts, he can’t find a way to extract himself from the exploitative relationship with his manager – a relationship whose true unpleasant depths would not be revealed until after Presley’s death.

“Elvis” is a biopic that manages to feel unique and completely conventional at the same time. It follows the usual cradle-to-grave formula, but does so with unusual visual panache. It makes perfect sense – who better to bring to life the flamboyant ubiquity of Elvis Presley than an aesthetic showman like Baz Luhrmann? The combination doesn’t always work – things get a little mushy in the middle – but it mostly does. And when it’s cooking? Hoo boy – you’re in for a treat.

Now, none of it matters – not story, not style, not aesthetics or energy – if you don’t have someone who can make the titular role their own. Elvis Presley is such a titanic, iconic figure in American popular culture. If you’re going to make a movie about him, the actor playing the part MUST nail it. If he doesn’t, the film simply won’t work.

Luckily, Austin Butler is phenomenal. He looks the part, of course, but he also manages to capture a reasonable facsimile of the King’s energy. The movement, the mannerisms – it all clicks. Oh, and the dude does his own singing (though there’s apparently some blending of his voice with the actual Elvis for the King’s later years). It’s an outstanding performance, one that captures Elvis while also existing comfortably in the garishly stylized and slightly outsized world that Luhrmann has created. There’s a lot of good work being done throughout the supporting cast, actually – a nice look at the people, good and bad, who surrounded Elvis throughout his life.

And now, the time has come to address the elephant in the room – Colonel Parker. I say this with deep love in my heart for Tom Hanks, but his performance here doesn’t really work. Despite layers of prosthetics and a weirdly unplaceable accent – neither of which is all that effective – he remains Tom Hanks. Don’t get me wrong – he’s going for it in a very real way. It’s not for lack of effort that the performance is ultimately unsuccessful … but it is. Parker is a complicated character regardless; making his perspective part of the lens through which we experience the movie is a questionable choice. Hanks is great, but this performance is not.

“Elvis” is a sumptuous visual experience, packed with great music and an excellent titular performance. Even with the relative misfire of the Tom Hanks performance, it’s a compelling and captivating musical biopic … albeit one that perhaps could have used a little less conversation and a little more action.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 27 June 2022 10:57


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