As a film about Elvis, Baz Luhrmann knocks this adaptation out of the park.
Published on June 22, 2022
Rating 4 /5
How do you make a film about Elvis? Do you go for the darkness that often feels glossed over in his golden admiration that has led to wild conspiracy theories about his demise? Do you embrace the musical wonderment of his rise to fame? For director Baz Luhrmann, the path must’ve been relatively clear, even for his chaotic and decadent style of direction. While his style was a bit questionable for Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby, it works exceptionally well here, marking what may be the director’s finest work to date.
Consider how the film starts. We don’t meet Elvis first but rather his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). He becomes the narrator who states that he’s going to set the record straight. Of course, those familiar with Parker’s legacy are well aware that he was an unethical man for his business practices that essentially forced Elvis to perform until his death. Those who know this will immediately be skeptical but even those just discovering this story can sense that Parker isn’t telling the whole story. After all, why is he telling us this story on what seems like his deathbed in the imagination of a casino? What’s he hiding?
While Parker’s dark secrets are soon revealed, we get to watch the mesmerizing rise and fall of Elvis Presley, perfectly portrayed by Austin Butler. Elvis starts off as a local singer who attracts the attention of Parker when he first hears him on the radio. To Parker, his singing makes him sound like a black man but it nearly floors Parker to learn that Elvis is white. The boy merely grew up around African-American influences that shaped his love of music. While the voice is astounding, it’s Elvis’ moves that really get Parker interested.
Parker hires Elvis for his traveling band of country music and notices how wild the crowd gets for Elvis. Namely, the women and, specifically, for his wiggling hips. The Elvis shake becomes the biggest draw of Parker’s show, making him more than willing to ditch the more traditional country aspects of Hank Snow. Elvis and Parker go into business together with Elvis being driven to hit the big time for the sake of helping his parents. So he signs the papers and places trust in a manager who is not entirely who he seems.
The biggest draw of such a film is undoubtedly going to be the musical sequences. This is where Luhrmann’s direction for the chaotic and overlapping works best. He loads up every Elvis performance with a whirlwind of angles that crowd the screen, where Elvis’ wiggle turns into a patchwork of reaction shots. Of course, none of this would work if Butler didn’t have the appeal and he performs admirably that it’s easy to get lost in his sequences. Luhrmann ensures that we become even more engrossed in the ecstasy of his music by turning nearly every shot into a remarkable work of art. It’s also fast-paced enough that there’s plenty of time during the music to have some narration by Parker, remarking on how he could see the bigger picture for Presley.
The faults of the film are minimal. Most of the dialogue ranges in the predictable range of melodrama dialogue, where characters are a bit too straightforward to make their greater concerns sink in. This leads to Parker saying directly that he doesn’t care about Elvis’ health and Elvis feeling as though he needs to say something important in a world of assassinations becoming a regular event. It’s a bit of a drag that there’s a host of talented performers present like Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Alton Mason that are sadly so reduced you could miss their entire scene with just one trip to the bathroom at the theater.
As a film about Elvis, Baz Luhrmann knocks this adaptation out of the park. His direction is stylish, the music is toe-tappingly joyous, and the by-the-numbers biopic tropes shine just a little brighter with the amazing editing. It’s a musical biography that manages to be as dazzling as it is heartfelt, rarely letting the tragedy of a country legend get lost in the shine of his legacy. Few musical biopics ever feel this exhilarating and honest, making for one of the best of this subgenre.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.