Director; Baz Luhrmann. Starring; Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge. Rated PG-13. Color. 159 Minutes.
Allow me to preface this review by saying I have never been a big Elvis fan. “Jailhouse Rock”is the only song of his I particularly enjoyed growing up. I do however have a huge amount of respect for how monumental of a legend the man was and still is. Music is subjective and we all have our favorites in different genres which is how music should be. And yet, there is a small amount of artists that, whether you are a fan or not, one must admit changed things historically. John Coltrane, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Metallica, Madonna, Nirvana, Tupac & Biggie, and most recently Lady Gaga and BTS, are all acts that go beyond popularity and truly changed the landscape. Elvis Presley, along with probably The Beatles, is at the top of the list of iconic musical figures who define the impact music will always have.
Known for his elaborate and bright films, director Baz Luhrmann takes to the helm, telling the story of one of history’s greatest showman. “Elvis” is a standard and at times an electrically infused musical biopic that goes from childhood to final performance and everything in between. This not-too-unique story is narrated by Colonel Parker (Tom Hanks), the life long manager of Elvis. A level of surrealism through this narration is attempted, but truthfully only works in spirts. Colonel Parker discovers Presley at a Hayride concert festival in which his gyrating had all the women running up to the stage and all the clean cut men who probably never knew how to please a women pissed as hell. Parker is also alleged to have been the one to kill Elvis at the end of his life, spoiler alert?
Colonel Parker grabs Elvis’s intrigue by telling him early on; “We are the same, you and I. Two odd, lonely children reaching for eternity.” In the beginning of his career Elvis starts collecting more and more people that supposedly care about him as well as a plethora of women’s panties on stage. To get away from the chaos at times, Presley goes to speak easy clubs with fellow legends like B.B. King and has a blast with a negro crowd. All the while government agents hired by politicians afraid Elvis’s popularity is bringing in the evil negro culture to whites are following the King and watching his every move.
With increasing government pressure on Parker, the Colonel tries to get Elvis to be more pleasing to the white nationalist culture, including a boring performance with zero shimmies. Fans are mobbing his home with signs reading “BRING BACK OLD ELVIS”. The censored clean cut image continues to eat at the icon. When a big stadium performance is coming up that has the coloreds force to be just outside of the stadium, Elvis is told to not even wiggle so much as a pinky. Welp, screw that. Elvis rocks out hard, causing a riot with blacks and whites enjoying the music and fighting police side by side.
The event has the authorities giving Presley two choices, jail time or go to war. Reluctantly, it is off to Germany for the biggest star in the world. The only positive thing to come out of his time of service is meeting the love of his life Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). Upon his return the Colonel puts Elvis in a series of cheesy movies with zero complexities in the plot. With the rise of counter culture, Elvis’s career is in the tank. The culmination is to be a cheesy Christmas special the PC television executives insist upon putting on. With the assassination of both MLK and Bobby Kennedy, Elvis does not want to do some fake poppy holiday special while wearing a cheesy sweater. Instead, Elvis comes out in his choice of outfit and plays his songs the way he does it, including making a political statement instead of playing the big festive final number. Turns out to be the biggest Christmas special the network has ever seen.
From there, “Elvis” as a movie just drags. The film dives into the prototypical drug use, bad record deals, and wife eventually leaving the legend stuff. The final third of this film is paint by numbers. Some of my other issues concern the fact that Baz Luhrmann directed it. This is his first and only good film in my opinion (I know some people think “Moulin Rouge” or “Romeo + Juliet” are classics for some reason). There are times when Luhrman does his standard nonsensical editing and flashy techniques that make zero sense. Fast editing works great for the concert scenes or the chaotic encounters with reporters. But just one example, the opening where they cut between multiple childhood scenes to carnival experiences to pre-first show talks makes zero sense as it has no center. It is not complicated, it simply lacks focus filmmaking wise. The sequence involving Elvis’s movie career is also another example of how not to make a montage as it mashes up multiple situations that are completely different in the characters life. My final problem I return to is the runtime, particularly in the really strong first two thirds of the picture. My goodness, does every concert scene have to go on-and-on? The three big set pieces, yes. But my god it feels at times like this was trying to be a concert video instead of a movie.
I cannot also forget to mention some glowing highlights. The obvious one, Austin Butler as the titular character. This young man is going to be a star. I’d bet 100 grand on it. He is fantastic from beginning to end, nothing else needed to be said. The three major concert scenes are top notch in both the build up as well as the performances themselves. It had a non-Elvis fan such as myself rocking out in the theater. Something unexpected for me watching a biopic on “THE KING OF ROCK” was how much the vibrant southern soul music was shown in a genuine light. That led into the Civil Rights moments later which were done with taste. And finally, a small but fascinating little touch. At three different moments a modern day Hip-Hop song inspired by the music on screen seeped in as a change of mood in the background. A nice touch to show how soul and rock music from back in the day still resonates.
This movie is made for the Elvis die hards who visit Graceland every other year and will catch this film multiple times. And I’m sure there are going to be things the sticklers will point out facts that are not historically accurate. Who cares? For me from a distance, “Elvis” is a solid music biopic. It does not have some truthful revelation or unique perspective on a musical genius such as an “Amadeus” or “I’m Not There”. What the film does contain is some get out of your seat moments with occasionally well made societal points. My personal favorite solo artist and second favorite musical act ever Tupac Shakur had one of the dumbest biopics ever. I can guarantee for you true blue lovers, “Elvis” will not have you leaving disappointed.
SUCK FACTOR: 3 out of 7 (7 Means Your Movie Really SUCKS!)
The SUCK FACTOR. How it works. We have flipped the script on the standard ratings system. If you make a classic ala “The Godfather”, you receive 0 SUCKS! If you make total garbage, such as a Michael Bay movie, you receive an imperfect 7 out of 7, meaning your movie really SUCKS!