THE STORY – Elvis Presley rises to fame in the 1950s while maintaining a complex relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
THE CAST – Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Luke Bracey, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kodi Smit-McPhee, Gary Clark Jr. & Richard Roxburgh
THE TEAM – Baz Luhrmann (Director/Writer), Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce & Jeremy Doner (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 159 Minutes
By Luke Hearfield
Baz Luhrmann, the visionary director of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet” has made his long-awaited return to the Cannes Film Festival with his highly anticipated musical biopic “Elvis.” The Australian filmmaker has had a rich history at Cannes. His breakout film “Strictly Ballroom” started as part of the Un Certain Regard selection back in 1992. He then went on to open the festival in a “spectacular spectacular” fashion with his much-beloved jukebox musical “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001. He then had the honor of being the first person to ever open the festival twice with his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” in 2013 – which received mixed reviews from critics. Since then, he’s mostly stuck to television projects such as “The Get Down.” It’s bonkers to think that it’s been almost a decade since the exuberant filmmaker has given us his last extravagant feature film.
Last night Luhrmann’s “Elvis” had its world premiere in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, where it received a 12-minute standing ovation – the longest of any film in the festival’s lineup this year. One can argue this wasn’t simply effusive adulation for the film but more of an acknowledgment of the Australian filmmaker’s grand return to the Croisette, a homecoming celebration of sorts. Because, to be honest, twelve minutes is exceedingly generous for a film like “Elvis.”
The film stars rising talent Austin Butler (“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood“) as the king of rock n’ roll, Elvis Presley, and Tom Hanks as Elvis’ long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker, who serves as the narrator of the film. Parker takes us on a greatest hits tour of Elvis’ life through the decades. From his humble beginnings in Memphis, to worldwide fame as a singer and movie star, to his Las Vegas residency, and eventually his tragic death – which many blamed Parker for. The film dives deep into the relationship between Presley and Parker, which went from symbiotic to toxic over the years.
From the opening shot of the bedazzled Warner Brothers logo, you immediately know you’re watching a Baz Luhrmann picture. Never one to play things safe or subtly, the entire opening sequence is quintessential Luhrmann. With frantic camerawork, crash zooms, and operatic music to boot, it’s the hyperactive style we expect from him. However, it’s not just Baz’s typical sensationalism for the sake of it; it reflects Presley’s childhood love for comic books and superheroes. Baz’s use of split screens unfolds Elvis’ childhood, though as if we’re observing it through the window panes of a comic strip. However, there’s a noticeable shift in energy shortly after a scene where we bear witness to the pandemonium that arises from the birth of Elvis’ legendary hip-wiggle. After this point, Luhrmann adopts a less chaotic approach to the remainder of the story – leaving the film feeling slightly uneven overall.
It also doesn’t help that Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner try to jam every aspect of Elvis’ life into one film, even with its 159-minute runtime. The screenplay is concerned with showing all the incarnations of Elvis; the singer, the movie star, the loving son, the husband, the father, and the Las Vegas legend – and not all of them get an equal slice of the pie. The end result is a film that feels both rushed and bloated in its execution. The relationship between Elvis and his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) especially is sadly underbaked. The screenplay only gives them maybe two scenes to establish an entire relationship. The rest of the time, we only really see Priscilla as a passive spectator in the audience of her husband’s concerts. So when Priscilla calls it quits on their relationship, despite terrific performances from Butler and DeJonge, there’s little emotional fallout to be felt.
“Elvis” is the next in the recent trend of musical biopics about iconic musicians that tend to generate a lot of awards buzz. In recent years we’ve had “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman,” “Judy,” and “Respect.” All have had varying degrees of success over award season. Many pundits already see Austin Butler as a viable contender for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Such suspicions are very much justified. Butler sparkles like a rhinestoned jumpsuit in this role as he nails Elvis’ signature drawl, cadence, physicality, and gyrating stage presence. It’s the type of transformational role of a notable figure from the entertainment industry that Academy voters and mainstream audiences simply can’t resist.
Oddly, Butler’s performance is most reminiscent of recent Oscar winner Jessica Chastain’s work in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” mainly because it’s all too easy to do a caricature impersonation of someone like Tammy Faye Baker or Elvis Presley. Like Chastain, Butler manages to go beyond Elvis, “the entertainer,” and gets to the root of Elvis, “the man.” He mines moments of pathos and sympathy from the unfocused screenplay, embodying all the qualities of the entertainer but without ever crossing the line into cartoonish exaggeration. However, the same can’t be said about his co-star, Tom Hanks’ Parker, whose hammy performance as the Colonel will most likely divide audiences.
Baz’s wife, collaborator, and two-time Oscar winner, Catherine Martin, brings her lavish production and costume design work to the forefront of “Elvis.” With Elvis’ proclivity for loud, rambunctious outfits, Martin gets to showcase an array of recognizably fabulous outfits, as well as bring Graceland and the International Hotel in Las Vegas to life with dazzling awe. The soundtrack boasts a fun selection of new songs from Doja Cat, Eminem, Eurovision winners Måneskin, and numerous bangers from Elvis’ catalog, all performed by Butler himself. There’s also a surprisingly delightful mashup of “A Little Less Conversation” and Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” which is sure to remind viewers of Luhrmann’s ability to blend styles and eras of timeless music as he’s done in his other films.
Despite all of the bombastic production value leaping off the screen, “Elvis” is a mixed bag of a film from one of the most polarizing filmmakers we have working today, which is no surprise given the reception to his previous efforts. His latest is trying too hard to tell every facet of Elvis’ life, thus causing it to buckle under the weight of itself. What Luhrmann and Presley have in common is they both have a spectacular flair for showmanship, so in many ways, Luhrmann seems like the perfect filmmaker to bring the king’s story to the big screen. And while it is still a sugar-rush ride of a movie, it is quite self-indulgent at times. It would’ve felt a lot more orderly and impactful if he reigned in the focus just a little bit more. However, this is an example of a mediocre film boosted to a pretty good one merely off the sheer skill of Butler’s incredible, star-making performance. In the words of Presley himself, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Austin Butler elevates a mediocre script with a rollicking performance for which the king himself would’ve given his blessing. The costume and production design work are extravagant and ravishing.
THE BAD – Baz Luhrmann tries to tell far too much of his subject’s story, resulting in underbaked plot threads and a lack of character development for necessary characters like Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and Vernon (Richard Roxburgh). Tom Hanks’ hammy performance is sure to divide audiences.