Released 2022. Director: Baz Luhrmann
I HAVE NEVER BEEN AN ELVIS FAN but I find this movie really quite enjoyable (and nobody paid me to say that). Turns out you don’t have to like Blue Suede Shoes or Jailhouse Rock to get swept up in the spectacle. Baz Luhrmann has managed to take me beyond my resistance to this particular style of music into his biopic on Elvis Presley, as told in an elaborate period extravaganza in a way only the inimitable Baz Luhrmann could.
This is also the Luhrmann movie that features his most emotionally rich and layered central character. At the end of the 159 minutes, there’s a palpable sense of dramatic emphasis from the way Elvis’s story is told. Beneath the thick sheen of glitz and Elvis's greatest hits is a weary man burdened by the demands of his talent and the voracious appetite to feed on his popularity.
The roots of Elvis’s passion for music can be traced to his boyhood in the Deep South, where he finds himself powerfully drawn to R&B and rousing gospel chorus. Although the birth of Elvis’s musical journey begins in the church, the rising star’s presence is not welcome and is perceived to wield an immoral influence on the young. The man also openly flouts racial segregation in the 1950s, a white boy fraternising with coloured folks. His celebrity status and the power of his music is a tool for unity, not that sponsors and advertisers at the time are keen or brave enough to capitalise on that.
Raised in a family of meagre means, Elvis is also a loving son whose first priority is to buy a big house for his mother and makes sure she, and the rest of the family, can live in comfort and wealth.
Baz condenses Elvis’s history with his signature visual grandiosity and cinematic flourish befitting the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Along Elvis's ascent to the height of his enduring popularity, the journey is never short on drama and a rollicking repertiore.
As much as it is a movie about Elvis, it’s also about Colonel Tom Parker, who credits himself as the man who discovered Elvis. The rise of Elvis runs parallel with the journey of Parker, who spots young Elvis at an early performance and quickly identifies a star in the making. Parker signs up Elvis and begins a lifelong relationship managing Elvis’s career from singing at carnivals to records to television to movies and a Vegas residency. Whilst Elvis becomes a money-printing machine, Parker cuts himself a generous profit, controlling the trusting performer until the man wises up and fires his puppeteer. But that’s not the end of the story.
In his trademark whirlwind style, Baz Luhrmann unfolds Elvis’s life story like a peer into a bottomless kaleidoscope, the glittery views resolutely held by the charisma of Austin Butler. From a young gun with the talent and instincts to his burned-out days as the world’s best selling artist, Butler’s portrayal of Elvis is full-throttled and dedicated. A sizzling intensity runs through his performance in a blend of public allure and private misery, not to mention Elvis’s pelvic gyrations that send his female fans into a screaming paroxysm.
I’ve said in the past it's about time Tom Hanks played another villain as a departure to the saintly roles that have become his calling card. Tom Parker is one of these roles, a shady man who hides his secretive past while deftly, often emotionally, manipulating his goose that lays the golden eggs. Tom Hanks is careful not to overplay the villainous aspect but to unmask Parker’s selfish nature on a gradual, incremental revelation through the years. Elvis the movie should be seen alongside A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood in which Hanks plays revered children’s TV host Fred Rogers for the contrast in how the actor effortlessly brings believability at two ends of the moral spectrum.
As a performer Elvis Presley was undoubtedly larger than life. There are few directors more suited to telling his story than Baz Luhrmann who always finds the largest canvas possible for his grand and sweeping projects. The story of a quintessential showman staged by a cinematic showman is dramatic and dynamic from the get-go.
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