Director Baz Luhrmann is no stranger to flashy, colorful, and energetic stories – so in that regard, who better fit to direct an Elvis biopic than him? In what could have easily been yet-another musical biopic that can be put to shame with one viewing of Dewey Cox, Elvis is a surprisingly thoughtful, at-times bleak, but nonetheless highly entertaining depiction of his story. The film is largely told through unreliable narration from Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the manager who is largely responsible for Elvis’ rise to fame in the 1950s but was accused of financial malpractice and abuse and general disregard for Presley’s best interests that arguably led to his untimely death in 1977 when he was only 42.
At a whopping 160 minutes, Baz Luhrmann does the absolute most behind the camera with plenty of visually stunning and highly entertaining concert sequences that will please the likes of casual movie-goers. However, what makes Elvis really standout among the rest of musical biopics is that of Austin Butler who plays Elvis Presley. Butler nails the mannerisms, voice, and look nearly perfectly – but what really makes his performance an all-timer is how he moves beyond impression and finds humanity underneath the theatrics. He nails the musical numbers perfectly with his voice and dancing, but he also delivers the goods during the more dramatic and quieter moments behind closed doors. I truly couldn’t see anyone else playing the role quite as well as Butler did. Bravo.
While the film isn’t necessarily the most insightful deep-dive if you want to learn about the more problematic elements of Elvis himself and how he was treated behind the scenes, it does a decent job at diving into the shadier parts of his life. On the one hand, it would be nice to have a film that more firmly addressed the controversies of Elvis taking from black musicians and artists, but the film is largely told through unreliable narration and also focuses on a somewhat bleak theme of how the music/entertainment industry is such a blackhole for young artists to spiral into with no safety net. It’s not the best examination of this topic I’ve ever seen, but in terms of telling Elvis’s story, warts and all – I found it to be hard-hitting and fairly nuanced.
Elvis does feel like it could use a slightly leaner running time as some sequences overstay their welcome and Baz’s style does sometimes overcome the heft of the story, but for the most part, he nails all the right moments and turns out a biopic that feels genuinely unique and somewhat visionary behind the camera. A lot of this is in-credit to Baz’s undeniable vision for how Elvis’ life should be visualized, but the perfect use of modern/classic music, beautiful costumes and production design, and a transformative, emotional, and nuanced performance from Austin Butler help this film soar above others like it.