If there was ever a life that was deserving of the Baz Luhrmann treatment, it’s the famed singer Elvis Presley’s. Despite only living until 42, Presley’s music remains considered among the greats, his home a place viewed as sacred from fans across the globe, and his legacy secured in time. But his life wasn’t a simple one and his relationship with Colonel Tom Parker, his manager and business partner, was rumored to be a significant reason as to why. It’s here that Luhrmann’s Elvis builds its foundation, exploring the parasitic relationship between the two men, attempting to present Parker as poison and Elvis as the willing recipient of said elixir as Parker grows rich while Elvis wilts away under the pressure of performing. Luhrmann uses the a cardiac event as the vehicle by which Tom Hanks’s Colonel Tom Parker ruminates on his culpability in the life and death of his most famous client, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), but never quite goes far enough in litigating either respective party for their parts.
There’s one thing that writer/director Baz Luhrmann will never be accused of: reticence. He goes for broke with his films (see Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001)), putting all of his ideas out there for the audience to absorb or deflect as necessary. His latest project, the biopic Elvis, is no different. It’s a non-stop onslaught of imagery and sound, swirling around the mythos of the famed entertainer Elvis Aaron Presley. Except it’s not just about Elvis, it’s about Elvis through the lens and relationship he had with manager Tom Parker. The approach is compelling, the subject engaging, and the material captivating, and yet much of Elvis feels afraid to really interrogate these people. Parker remains a mystery, remaining in the shadows despite being such a larger figure in Elvis’s life. It doesn’t matter that Hanks’s Parker declares himself a snowman from the start (carnival speak for a conman) or that it’s made clear that the man has gambling problems, we don’t learn anything about him that offers a different shade than conniving or manipulative. The mystery of Parker is particular intriguing, yet it’s all but left alone in favor of presenting the life of Elvis from birth to legacy post-death. Especially given the performer’s complex legacy as it relates to his success off the backs of Black performers, there’s an opportunity here to either lock down a defense or make an apology, yet it never dares to do either. Instead, we are presented with moments in which Elvis is among the company of Black performers, learning lessons, taking notes, but, outside of a few scenes with Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s B.B. King, Elvis is barely shown fraternizing with anyone of color, almost solidifying the notion that, even if without malice, he made his fame by knowingly marketing himself through appropriation. Not to mention that, while Elvis himself makes his own choices to be sure, there’s a great deal that’s about him reacting to major figures in social change without established reason of his connection beyond the symbolic.
Both Hanks and Butler do great work here. In fact, seeing Hanks shed his “America’s Father” persona to do this kind of character work is a heck of a treat. The way he delivers his dialogue almost feels bewitching, especially when Hanks as Parker tells the Presleys exactly what they want to hear, using the very words he overheard them utter. Beguiling to be sure, Hanks makes us want to trust Parker, even as we know we seal our fate in the process. For his part, Butler plays Elvis with deft and care, delivering the kind of charisma that honors the essence of who Elvis was on stage and, perhaps even, who the man saw himself to be off of it. Or, at the very least, Butler finds a shade of the man within the performer who consciously fought against the bright lights and only wanted to play music. When that version of Elvis comes out, Butler is undeniably magnetic.
Whatever you think or feel about the artist himself, there’s no denying that there’s plenty of artistry and craft at play in the film. Granted it’s an absolute ride, one which doesn’t stop until the text cards reveal how and when Presley finally became free of the Colonel, almost to dizzying effect. There’s still a great deal of care that went into replicating details like periods, locations, clothing, and, yes, even the hair. If you’re the sort that looks forward to a home release in order to have a chance at learning about exactly these kinds of things, the home release from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment includes four featurettes totaling over 45 minutes of material. Not to mention a lyric video for the version of “Trouble” sung in the film, as well as over 46 minutes of what are dubbed “musical moments.” Basically you can jump to your favorite musical parts of the film rather than sift through all the rest in order to enjoy Butler’s various recreations of Presley.
Frankly, I find it strange that the song contributed by Doja Cat, “Vegas,” isn’t included on the home release. It’s not because I’m a fan of the song (hadn’t heard it until preparing for this home release review), but because it’s an original song that remakes several of the songs made famous by Elvis that he took from lesser known Black singers. Putting the video on the home release would be a step in the right direction of trying to make right claims of appropriation; a little bit of using Elvis’s clout to uplift current Black performers, which he didn’t appear to do during his lifetime. (I understand Doja Cat has her own following, but the notion still stands.) Separate from this, as someone who was young enough to know Eminem during the time of his debut, I find it hilarious that the man has a song on the soundtrack for Elvis when he, too, was accused of appropriation. The largest difference between Elvis and Eminem being that Eminem brought people up with him where Elvis did not.
On the whole, the film is a fine spectacle. It’s exactly what one wants from a showman of Presley’s caliber. Bright lights, rousing songs, and a rhythm that runs from start to finish that barely drops the beat. This is great for maintaining momentum, but it’s not when one wants to explore beyond the surface, something which Elvis barely attempts to do. The film does allow for moments in which the audience can peak behind the curtain, see the struggles between the desire to play it safe and make money versus do something that matters and live on your own terms. In those moments, Elvis is more than compelling, it’s spell-binding. But once the spell is broken, we can see the strings and puppet shows lose their luster when they run two hours+.
Elvis Special Features:
- Bigger Than Life: The Making of Elvis (22:24)
- Rock ‘N Roll Royalty: The Music & Artists Behind Elvis (7:34)
- Fit for a King; The Style of Elvis (8:02)
- Viva Australia: Recreating Iconic Locations for Elvis (7:27)
- “Trouble” Lyric Video (2:16)
- Musical Moments (46:14)
Available on digital August 9th, 2022.
Available on HBO Max September 2nd, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD September 13th, 2022.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.