On the surface, the pairing of a biopic about Elvis Presley with a filmmaker like Baz Lurhmann should be a no-brainer success. Then again, “surface” is the issue here, as way too much of Elvis is merely surface level. For a film that runs over two and a half hours long, not diving deep into anything is a huge miscalculation. Strong performances, excellent musical sequences, and some genuinely moving moments can’t contend with terrible pacing, a miscalculation about where the focus should be, and a sense that this sort of cradle to the grave movie is past its prime. There are tons of worse biopics out there, but considering the massive potential of this one, the fact that this flick is a bit of a letdown only makes the disappointment more palpable.
Elvis is both too traditional and wildly out there. The tradition is in trying to tell an entire life’s story, while it’s out there in being done with Lurhmann’s signature style. More below on that, but style over substance doesn’t really work for a biopic, even one about someone as flashy as Presley. We never learn enough about Elvis the person, or really anyone else, including Colonel Tom Parker. That’s a huge issue, too, since the film oddly decides to be as much about Parker as Presley. There’s a way that the movie works while taking that approach, but not the one we got, sadly.
The story of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), one of the most famous and influential musicians of all-time, is told through the eyes and opinions of his former manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The latter discovers the former and sees not just a mealticket, but the type of performer that can change the world. From his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi to his early days in Memphis, Tennessee, we see how Presley grew to became…Elvis, the first true rock ‘n roll star.
As Elvis rises to fame in the 1950s, becoming literally the biggest star on the planet, he maintains a complex relationship with Parker. His manager is only looking out for himself, even if he claims to the contrary, but other members of his team, including Jerry Schilling (Luke Bracey) and of course his bride Pricilla (Olivia DeJonge), see Parker in a truer light. Whether it’s his comeback special or residency in Las Vegas, it’s largely all filtered through Elvis and the Colonel. Of course, we know it all ends in tragedy, but watching it unfold, you see all of the wasted potential in a talent that already managed to change the world.
Austin Butler is terrific here and Tom Hanks is very good as well. Butler does a great Elvis Presley impression, but also captures his mix of innocence and intensity. He also shines when singing and gyrating. It’s everything you want out of someone in this role, even if the writing doesn’t fully support him. As for Hanks, some won’t be able to get past the fat suit and broad accent, but he’s leaning in to playing a snake of a person, with consistently interesting results. You may prefer to be watching Elvis, but the Colonel does present a compelling side character, just one unfortunately given almost co-lead status. Olivia DeJonge gets forgotten about by the screenplay more than you’d like, but she gives life to a woman very much in the shadows of her man. The supporting cast includes bigger young names like Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Kodi Smit-McPhee, alongside others like Richard Roxburgh, Helen Thomson, and David Wenham, in addition to the aforementioned Bracey. Still, this is the Butler and Hanks show, through and through.
Co-writing and directing, Baz Lurhmann is all over the place, not that you should be totally surprised by that. Often, the direction is flashy enough to liven things up, with cinematographer Mandy Walker especially doing well with the musical scenes, though it also leads to wild tonal inconsistencies. However, it’s the script that’s the mess. The crediting of it suggests as much, with this being the official designation: Screenplay by Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner, Lurhmann, and Craig Pearce, with Doner and Luhrmann also getting Story by credits. So, there are a lot of cooks in this kitchen. The focus on Parker never makes this any more interesting, just distracting. Every time we’re about to finally get in deep with The King, his manager pops back up to hog the spotlight. To some degree, that was real life, and the film tries to depict that, but it mostly just makes it even more surface level than it seems to be. When you run over two and a half hours (you could easily cut about 40 minutes from the run time), that’s a killer.
Awards-wise, Elvis may prove to be a contender, regardless of my issues. Best Picture remains to be seen, but Best Actor for Butler and Best Supporting Actor for Hanks are nominations that could be in the cards. Below the line, the flick should be a technical player as well. If something like Bohemian Rhapsody could do as well as it did, then anything is possible, so sleep on this one at your own risk. Then again, Rocketman was nearly shut out, so musical biopics are no slam dunks. All in all, even as a flawed picture, it remains a player.
Elvis is going to play for fans of The King, no doubt about that. There’s tons of his music, Butler does a good job as Presley, and this sort of old fashioned film has its place. It’s just a shame that Luhrmann and company zig when they should have zagged, leading to a frustrating experience. It’s not like there aren’t excellent sequences, either, like what culminates in If I Can Dream being performed, or the final ten to fifteen minutes of Elvis. This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch, but it’s too long and should have been way better, given the opportunity presented. Alas.