Baz Luhrmann’s brings his bombastic flash to the King of Rock and Roll’s biopic
The music biopic is a genre that despite producing many interchangeable films, has delivered true breakthroughs in cinema, such as the criminally underappreciated Rocketman (2019). For the Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who has infused pop-music through all his films ranging from Moulin Rouge (2001) to The Great Gatsby (2013), it has taken him too long to arrive at the genre.
Elvis (2022) is told from the point of view of the infamous Elvis manager Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who chronicles the rise of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) from a skinny singer appropriating black music, to the worldwide phenomena he became, and the inevitable corruption fame and glory brang.
Luhrmann has not directed a feature-length film in nearly ten years, since The Great Gatsby, and thus it is welcome to see his bombastic cinematic style return to the screen. Certainly, the restless pace and editing, characteristic to Luhrmann, enlivens the rather by-the-numbers Elvis script. We don’t spend much time in the slow character-building moments of Elvis’ childhood, and instead go for the flashy and dramatic moments. The film is centered around moments in Elvis’ life when it came time to make a choice regarding his identity, this can play out well in the first act of his life, where he is still defining his style, but towards the latter half of his career, when the choice was whether to make $1 million dollars in a Las Vegas residency or in a world tour, the stakes wane. Luhrmann clearly wants to focus more on admiring Elvis’ career as well as showing the tragedy behind his broken character towards the end of his life, and how Tom Parker akin to a Salieri to Elvis’ Mozart, leeches him dry, which makes for a curious framing of a narrator.
Luhrmann is greatly aided by casting the up-and-coming star Austin Butler in the lead role. Many performers in a biopic, usually rush through the younger and “boring” years of a character’s life, wanting to get to the “juicy” adult years. Not with Butler, the American actor takes care to inhabit the skin of the revolutionary singer at every step of the way. He convincingly transforms him from scrawny, to burly, with his changes in posture, glances, and smirks doing the heavy lifting (a curious use of tanning to age him is also incredibly effective). If Luhrmann had been more patient with his camera work and editing, viewers would also have been able to admire Butler’s dancing ability. Butler is bold enough to go the route of both imitating Elvis and his distinct voice (in his singing too) as well as delivering the vulnerable and suffering performance at the heart of the film. Tom Hanks, however, is grossly miscast. Hanks grew to fame and has excelled at playing the “everyman,” but when forced to inhabit such an eccentric and clearly villainous role of Tom Parker, he turns him into a cartoon that dilutes the antagonism that Elvis needs to contrast with its eponymous character.
In the end, Elvis is another flashy and blazing Luhrmann picture, whose signature style and impatience help give the biopic structure a refreshing facelift. Butler does a spectacular job at disappearing into a dedicated performance, but core issues relating to final act pacing and a miscast villain can’t push Elvis over the top into the upper echelon of music biopics.