Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) is back, this time writing and directing the dramatized biopic Elvis. Luhrmann’s script starring Sam Bromell (The Get Down) and Craig Pearce (The Great Gatsby) tells the story of the larger-than-life rock and roll icon in a magnificent way only this flamboyant director could achieve.
Young Elvis Presley lives in the white part of Tupelo, the Mississippi slum, where he reads comic books and hopes for a better life for his family. Grown-up Elvis (Austin Butler) finds his way to that better life in the music of juke-joints and tent revivals, catapulting him into a career of spectacular proportions. This career is aided and exploited by Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who guides Elvis through every career step and often in his personal choices. From his first television appearance to his untimely death, one thing is certain: Elvis will live forever.
Luhrmann’s unique character and style are projected onto every aspect of the film and in most cases it makes for an extremely positive experience. He knows how to get the most out of his actors, whether it’s a main character or a supporting role. Every move is choreographed on camera and every scene change is mixed with marquees, unique cinematic angles and narrative text elements. The contrast of light on Elvis and darkness on Parker is central to how the characters are viewed. As for these two, it takes a lot for someone to overshadow Hanks; but Butler is amazingly up to the task. His natural ease with Elvis’ looks, movements and personality draws the audience in as he really channels Elvis’s character. The decision for Hanks to have an exaggerated accent that the real Parker didn’t have is a little odd. Still, the intent may be to further separate him from those around him. The only downside to the script is that it occasionally drags as it slides from the middle to the last act, which is slightly distracting. Some liberties are taken with exactly what happened and when, but it doesn’t matter. The movie is from Parker’s point of view, so it’s only natural that things might seem different from that point of view. Despite this, there is no doubt who the villain of the play is, just as it was revealed later in real life.
As always with Luhrmann, the cinematography is a procession of spectacular shots. Light, shadow and especially color provide a dazzling display. These are accentuated by Luhrmann’s skill at selecting soundtrack tracks that traverse time and space to hit the moment perfectly. He doesn’t need them to mark the period exactly, and they don’t even do that with Elvis’ songs, to make the point that Luhrmann is pursuing.
To the extent that Elvis was such a larger-than-life personality. it would take a writer/director of equally epic proportions to properly bring that life to the screen. Luhrmann is a perfect fit for a movie that feels like its own version of a Vegas residence. Love him or hate him (which is true for both Luhrmann and Elvis), you can’t help but watch him – and that, frankly, is what makes this film a feast for any audience.