Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Review
Baz Luhrmann has given us plenty of stories derived from glitz and glamour but cemented in tragedy and loss from Romeo + Juliet to Moulin Rouge. Now he’s compartmentalizing the story of the king of rock and roll with his signature style in Elvis.
Starring breakout newcomer Austin Butler as the gyrating superstar himself, and Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s shady manager the film incorporates a typical biopic structure with flashy editing choices all to the film’s benefit.
The beginning of the film can feel a bit startling and fast-paced to viewers who were expecting a slow burn to kickstart Elvis’s fascinating story but as quickly as he came and went this film catapults Elvis into the spotlight and then slowly watches him crumble until stardom and the pressures he faces. The film is a dedication to Elvis Presley no doubt but touches on an imperative element that shaped the singer and his polarizing dance moves. Growing up in poverty in Memphis in the late 30s and 40s the young Elvis was constantly inundated with black culture. His captivation with the movements and vibrating voices of his neighbors embedded itself in his very heart and soul and led him to the stage where he came alive.
This addition of blues and R&B as well as Elvis’s many influences is refreshing as many fans don’t realize that one of the most prolific music stars of all time derived his inspiration and style from black music which is underplayed in other depictions of Elvis in order to cast this genre as “white music” even though that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The film also doesn’t shy away from pointing out the horrific racist agenda of the radical right during the 50s equating Elvis’s music as a foreground to integration, something Elvis fought for especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. These somber moments in the film are contrasted with Butler’s eerily similar voice ringing out the simultaneously depressing but uplifting anthems we still sing today.
The film also portrays Elvis’s friendship with famous blues musician B.B King played in the film by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and addresses the singer’s cultural appropriation of black music which is still debated today by black and white fans alike. Whichever side audience members find themselves on, Luhrmann’s inclusion of this integral part of Elvis’s life strengthened the story and broadened the perspective of the rock and roll star. With biopics of musical legends being made left and right with 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman just a year later, Elvis certainly stands out as Luhrmann’s signature direction grips this story and doesn’t let go.
While Butler’s performance has been making headlines and conjuring up award ceremony speculation, Academy Award winner actor Tom Hanks has been criticized for his portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker. Seeing the Forrest Gump actor in a fat suit and spouting a comical Dutch accent took away from the Colonel’s power over the young singer. Some have also wondered why Luhrmann chose to tell Elvis’s story through the eyes of the corrupt talent manager.
Still, the script is air-tight featuring jokes that always land, dialogue that serves more than just witty banter between characters and doesn’t miss a single emotional moment from the death of Gladys Presley to Elvis’s being drafted. While other musical biopics have stumbled over their convoluted storylines, Elvis is an eccentric, toe-tapping rhythm of a film that may leave viewers exhausted after its near 3-hour run-time but still feeling like they’ve just been submerged in the greatest show on Earth.