The King of Rock and Roll finally gets his proper due in this 159-minute musical extravaganza from director Baz Luhrmann.
To understand what Elvis Presley meant to millions of people and his overall impact on the evolution of music also gets to the meaning of a slice of the story of America. Elvis embraced the past while becoming a revolutionary and in the process left a lasting impact on generations of young people to come. You cannot talk about music and its influence in America without mentioning Elvis. Elvis was an icon who forever changed the landscape of music and is still the best-selling solo musical artist of all-time. Despite the problems Elvis had later in his career that ultimately led to his death at an early age, director Baz Luhrmann describes his biopic that hits theaters this weekend as a superhero film. At one point during Elvis, the famed musician explains how he feels like a bird without wings, and that’s exactly the type of film you get here: a film that’s always soaring across the sky, showing the highs of someone who was, in a sense, a superhero to many. It is a film that celebrates the life and music that made such a cultural impact that only a handful of other artists can claim to have done. Not only is Elvis a spectacle that pays homage to the King of Rock and Roll, but it is also a music biopic that reinvigorates a genre that has become standard or stale in recent years by infusing contemporary music into classic rock ‘n’ roll to bring in potential new fans who may be hearing Presley’s music for the first time.
Elvis tells the story of the famed musician from his small beginnings in Mississippi to stardom and everything in between. Not only does the film chronicle Elvis’ illustrious music catalog of record-setting hits through the years, but it also shows us his Memphis roots, his time in Hollywood as a movie star, the impact of his music during the tumultuous 60s, and his residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas during the latter years of his life where he performed over 600 shows. And at the center of all things Elvis is his controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who tells this story.
It is evident from the opening frame of Elvis that Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge! and most recently The Great Gatsby, and his filmmaking style are all over this movie. And for a feature coming in at over two and a half hours, it has to cover so much at such a breakneck pace that it moves as quickly as Elvis’ legs at one of his concerts. Still this may not be the in-depth story some die-hard fans are looking for; I highly recommend the outstanding 2017 documentary The King for those folks. And if you’re not into this picture by the time the famed musician takes the stage for the first time, then there’s a good chance you’re not going to like this film at all. Luhrmann shows the glitz and glamor that made Elvis Presley such a huge icon, and that makes this director and this musician’s story a perfect match.
To say the least, anyone attempting to portray Elvis Presley was going to have some big shoes–and stylish outfits–to fill. But Austin Butler fits into both with such ease and delivers an awards-worthy performance as the man from Graceland. It is not enough to expect Butler to get a huge burst to his career after this role; rather, it would be more accurate to say of Butler that a star is born. Delivering mannerisms and vocals strikingly similar to those of Presley, no one will leave unimpressed, especially considering Butler does almost all the singing in this film. Most music biopics have actors mimicking vocals or delivering tunes somewhat similar to the famed musicians they are portraying. But Butler’s delivery of almost every song he sings as or any line of dialogue he speaks is strikingly impressive. And he manages to give his all while dressed in a number of outfits that look terribly uncomfortable to wear, even if they are worthy of awards recognition in their own right.
Elvis is arguably the best music biopic since 2004’s Ray. And while it will be considered imperfect for its lack of depth or for featuring a performance from everyone’s favorite actor, Tom Hanks, as the overweight Parker that gets caught up in the prosthetics and makeup (though the performance is fine), its visual and audio presentation make for an extravaganza that would make Elvis himself proud. Presley, the ultimate showman, likely would tip his cap to Austin Butler for delivering one of the best performances by an actor in recent memory. And on top of that, the film also respectfully frames the much-discussed and documented influence that gospel and R&B music had on Presley during his younger days.
Elvis Presley played the role of showman and heartthrob better than anyone before and, arguably, since his heyday. But Presley was a fine musician as well as a complicated human being. It’s difficult to capture all that in one biopic, but Elvis comes as close to succeeding as any film version of the icon can. After all, he was the King.