ELVIS is directed by Baz Luhrmann. The film stars Austin Butler and Tom Hanks.
Recruited by the eccentric “Colonel” Tom Parker, young Elvis Presley, a hot up-and-coming singing sensation on Sun Records, is propelled into superstardom and a major record deal from a young age, garnering a massive fan base of young people and the ire of many an authority figure. Presley serves in the military, marries, records, stars in films, and tours and performs to enthusiastic audiences, culminating with several years of performances at the International Hotel* in Las Vegas, until a history of substance abuse ends his life and promising career at age 42.
Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know who Elvis Presley is? The best-selling solo recording artist of all time, he was certainly one of the most influential performers ever, with a legacy that has lasted well past his lifetime. ELVIS, this biopic from Baz Luhrmann, attempts to tell the story of Mr. Presley and his relationship with Tom Parker. Despite a drawn-out 160-minute running time and some elements that don’t feel as developed as they should be, the film mostly succeeds, largely thanks to the performances of the leads. There aren’t a ton of surprises for the fans of Mr. Presley, but they’ll appreciate the efforts that went into this film nonetheless.
Where this movie deserves its greatest praise is in the casting of its leading man. Confession time – prior to seeing this movie, I didn’t know who Austin Butler was, aside from a handful of minor roles in films I’d seen in recent years. Here he plays what’s sure to be the defining role of his career. When Mr. Butler is on screen, Elvis Presley lives again. Countless memorable sequences are thrown at the viewer, and Butler’s performance seals the deal. By the end of this movie, his performance was forever cemented in my mind. I know that Presley is dead and gone, and will never live again. But for these 160 minutes, Austin Butler made a believer out of me. His performance has apparently garnered respect and acclaim from the Presley Family, and it’s not hard to see why.
Not to be outdone is Tom Hanks, who makes the role of Colonel Tom Parker his own. One of the biggest surprises about this movie is how it actually manages to delve into Parker’s (often unfavorable) past, showing us a side of the iconic management figure and his own demons. A lack of chemistry between Butler and Hanks would’ve left this film dead in the water, but every sequence these two share together is truly magical. In recent years. Mr. Hanks has made a name for himself playing real-life individuals on the big screen, and it seems like he gets better at it with each performance.
The music scenes in ELVIS are spectacular, but I’m pleased to report it’s not just a movie about music. Presley’s home life and other off-the-stage moments are captured well here. It’s good to see that, while the music scenes certainly take the lead in a movie like this, the results off stage and out of the studio are just as satisfactory. Whether it’s Presley as a young boy torn between a gospel revival tent and a Black guitarist/singer engaging in forbidden activity with a woman, or Presley’s transformation from a timid boy with a stage fright to one who enthralls everyone in the crowd in the blink of an eye, ELVIS is truly a magical film. From the scenes of the King of Rock and Roll as a young boy and a teen to those where he’s taken on a less-than-favorable physique on the stage of the International Hotel*, it hits the highlights of his life and then some. It’s a movie about music, yes, but it’s so much more.
The film is admittedly not perfect. The 160-minute running time is excessive; half an hour of content likely could’ve been condensed or streamlined. The narrative structure early in the movie is a bit sloppy, jumping back and forth between time periods, entertaining as these sequences may be. At times the production crew goes crazy with stylized elements like split screens. Some elements, like Presley’s relationship with wife Priscilla, and to a greater extent the other members of his entourage, feel underdeveloped. I understand that the filmmakers had a daunting task here in bringing one of the biggest rock-pop legacies to life on the big screen. And flaws aside, the movie succeeds at what it sets out to do.
ELVIS, in the capable hands of directed Baz Luhrmann and the electrifying performances of Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, will take fans by storm. For these 160 minutes, Elvis lives again. Is the film too long? Absolutely. Could some elements have been handled better? Probably. But it doesn’t change the fact that ELVIS is one of my favorite films of 2022 so far, and it’ll be criminal of Butler doesn’t get a Best Actor nomination for his work here.
Very highly recommended!
*One minor footnote – the hotel that was originally known as the International Hotel was actually only called that for the first two years of operation; for the four decades that followed it was the Las Vegas Hilton. However the film always depicts it as the International regardless of the year, which is historically inaccurate, possibly due to legalities or creative license.