Review: Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis' biopic is a must-see masterpiece
Deemed the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley had countless hits and garnered a fanbase unlike any other in his time. The recently released biopic, Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann, tells the story of the icon, capturing the excitement of his life in the spotlight and the legacy he left behind.
I caught one of the last showings in theaters a few weeks ago, and I was blown away. I never knew much about Presley besides his sparkly costumes and a couple of his top hits, but in under 3 hours, I learned so much about him and really enjoyed my time doing so.
The fast-paced film shows the evolution of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), covering his first radio hit, touring, acting, his Las Vegas show, and all of the ups and downs of each stage. Viewers also get to experience what it was like being at some of Presley's most iconic performances, re-enacting them from both the audience and performer's perspective.
The whole film was executed so well and kept me entertained the entire time. I left the theaters wanting to know more, googling different parts of the film to see if they were accurate to what happened in real life and digging into some of the details of events. I was also introduced to some of Presley’s older music and reminded of some popular tunes I had forgotten. Right after the movie I saved a bunch of his songs and have been listening to them on repeat ever since.
The film takes a unique approach and actually tells the story from the perspective of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The mysterious man with a background as a carnival worker had a knack for getting money out of people. They show the many business ideas he generated, including the clever “I hate Elvis” merchandise, and an internationally broadcasted concert that took place right here in Honolulu. The televised special, “Aloha from Hawaii,” was the first of its kind, and created a lasting association between Presley and the Hawaiian islands.
Though Colonel Parker had his effective and supportive moments, there are other times he is questionable to say the least. The spotlight on this twisted codependence was an interesting take that confused me at first, but really pulled together in the end. Getting to hear the thought process of his manager throughout the story was quite insightful. From his first time hearing Presley on the radio, we hear how this “villain” of the story rationalized everything he did or did not do. It’s left up to the viewer to decide if he was more helpful or harmful in Presley’s career and life.
As someone who knew absolutely nothing about Presley’s backstory, it was really insightful to see his upbringing in the first portion of the movie. I learned that he had a twin brother that died at birth, and he was very close with his mother. His parents struggled with money and their family lived in a predominantly black community. They show him as a kid and later as a young adult, being inspired by the gospel and blues music around him, and that eventually became the core of his own music style.
My favorite scenes were any of Presley’s live performances because they did a great job of capturing the energy of being at one of his concerts. His first show especially was such an entertaining sequence to watch. Seeing him go from nervous to exploding with a powerful voice and hip-swinging dance moves was a true star moment. The most priceless part was the crowd’s reactions. It was interesting to see the mix of infatuation and disgust as a response to something so foreign.
Especially with the racist culture at the time, many did not approve of his Black-inspired style of song and dance. I appreciated the time spent addressing the social climate of that time period, as it gave important context to his journey. I grew a real respect for Presley after realizing how much backlash he had to endure. They also did a good job of crediting many of the Black artists he looked up to and was friends with.
Besides this huge hurdle, Presley had many other struggles through the years. His mom passed away early on, and that only deepened the bond he has with Colonel Parker, creating an almost blind trust. They show him fighting to stay relevant and fulfill his goals as he ages, and even touch on him and his family managing his fortune poorly, spending on frivolous things, and letting his manager take unfair profits.
The movie reminded me of another favorite of mine, Whiplash. In both films, we witness performers who crave praise and the sacrifices made for stardom. With Presley, it’s real life. We see him being heavily medicated to stay awake and the steady deterioration of his health and relationships with all of the overwork. The chronic stress is not uncommon for many artists at the top of their craft. Both stories also focus on a teacher, or in this case, a manager, that the performer has a love-hate relationship with. They make you question the power dynamics at hand and the line is between pushing and breaking someone.
The editing in Elvis was quite a lot, unlike any film I’d seen before, but it was fitting. For me, it was overwhelming in the best way possible, capturing the glitz and glamor of Presley’s lifestyle. The movie as a whole was a bit tiring with how much was covered, but the songs were placed perfectly throughout, offering a break from the drama while still contributing to the story. The feeling of exhaustion also felt intentional, to make the audience feel the same way Presley felt with the chaos of it all.
I also have to give praise to the styling in the film. The hair, makeup, and wardrobe displayed the evolution from the 40s through the 70s so seamlessly. Every look, down to each extra, was stunning. I felt fully immersed in whatever time period they were portraying, not to mention the amazing makeup and prosthetics to make Butler look like Presley at all his different ages.
Butler did an amazing job portraying the King of Rock. His performance is what would really make or break the film, and I think he absolutely made it. His voice, movements, emotions, he nailed all of it. You see how he put his all into each song, just like Presley did, exerting so much of himself until he had nothing left to give. By the end, I was hanging on to every last frame, waiting for a redemption that never quite came.
If you haven’t watched Elvis yet, I highly recommend checking it out. It celebrates the impact of the King of Rock while also humanizing him. It's energetic, emotional, and something people of all ages can enjoy. I hope to watch it again with my grandma next time. I think she’ll enjoy the flash from the past.