Elvis serves as a mostly faithful retelling of the story of one of music’s biggest icons, capturing the major moments of Presley’s life from his impoverished childhood to his rise to stardom, both in music and movies — all the way to his eventual downfall.
What sets it apart from the numerous other films made about the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ are two things: first is Austin Butler’s performance as Elvis which is a master class of method acting. Butler had a tough job to do as he had to portray a man who has been impersonated and parodied by almost everyone under the sun. However, he was fully committed to his role; the two years he spent researching every aspect of the King’s life and even training with vocal coaches to get his singing down are clear in the film. Butler masters not only Elvis the showman but also Elvis the person, humanizing the pop icon in the process. Butler captures Elvis’ duality of being both as an ultra-famous ultra-rich celebrity and a devout Christian boy from the South who grew up with very little.
The second is how well it captures Elvis’ influences and stardom. As is well known by now, Elvis heavily borrowed from African-American music whether it was jazz or gospel singers, this film does an excellent job showing how essential these pioneers were for Presley’s meteoric rise. Elvis’ appeal was always about how he tapped into something forbidden that conservative America wasn’t ready to acknowledge it enjoyed. Not only was his jazz-influenced singing taboo but his dancing was considered scandalous for that time period. And yet, every one of Elvis’ hip thrusts drove his female fans into a frenzy. They weren’t alone either, as the movie gives a subtle nod to Elvis’ status as a gay icon by showing a young man hypnotized by his gyrations on TV.
The biopic does a great job of capturing America at that time: Elvis faced virulent opposition from conservatives outraged by what they saw as a white man pretending to be Black. Elvis shot to fame around the same time segregation was being challenged in the 1950s by the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. He himself never shied away from breaking segregation norms, regularly hanging out with B.B. King, and getting away with doing so because “he was a white boy who made a lot of people a lot of money”.
A lot of Presley’s fame was aided by being in the spotlight at the right time — not only was he challenging racial norms that were already being questioned but he also challenged the norms of gender and sexuality. Never shying away from showing off his flamboyant side through his makeup, outfits and dance moves helped make Presley a bona fide youth icon.
Alongside commenting on race relations at that time, Director Baz Luhrmann highlights both the evils of capitalism as well as the exploitative nature of the music industry. Presley’s infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, controlled his prize pony with an iron grip, binding him to an unfair contract which gave him 50% of everything made by Elvis. Alongside this, Parker stifled Elvis’ creative vision, preferring to keep him singing safe Christmas songs that would keep their corporate bosses happy rather than letting him experiment.
Further, Parker prevented Elvis from going on foreign tours not only because he would not be allowed (due to being an illegal alien) but also, in part, due to the gambling debts he had incurred with the International Hotel in Las Vegas, as Presley was run ragged performing at the hotel for six years. Of course, Presley’s love for the audience is a factor to be considered here but Parker’s machinations ensure he’s tied down to the place for what feels like an eternity.
The film is not without its flaws. Luhrmann goes the route that biopics often do by brushing under the carpet less-than-flattering aspects of Presley’s life, such as his cocaine addiction, which in the film is shown to be an addiction to just pills. In the movie, Presley is quoted as saying that he likes Beatles’ music but in real life, Presley infamously met with then-president Richard Nixon to discuss how the band is an anti-American force that was brainwashing the youth and furthering drug culture.
In this version of events, Presley is in-tune with the hippie movement, with Parker even accusing him of being brainwashed by them, when in reality, he actually wanted to infiltrate the movement to, in his words, “respect the lost pride for the American flag”. In the film, he’s also widely beloved by the Black community, which is true to an extent but there is no representation for those in the African American community who saw Presley as someone who appropriated Black music to make millions while the originators toiled away in poverty.
The worst case of airbrushing by far is the romanticism of Presley’s relationship with his wife Priscilla. The film does mention that she’s a teenager when the two meet but it doesn’t mention that she was 14 when Presley began courting her during his military service, an uncomfortable age gap in today’s times. Further, the film fails to mention Presley’s illicit love affair with actress Ann Margaret in 1963.
The movie robs Elvis of his agency, chalking down his eventual downfall to the tragic death of his mother as well as being exploited by his manager. Whilst these factors definitely played a role, Elvis’ own choices also caused him personal turmoil — from his addiction to drugs to his womanizing to growing gradually distant from his family with his wife. These, in the end, were all Presley’s own choices and the film portrays him as a beleaguered hero exploited by everybody rather than someone who played an active role in his own issues.
Failure to talk about these things is an understandable decision considering Luhrmann is clearly a fan of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll but it robs the character of the nuance it might deserve.
No one suffers more from this lack of nuance than Colonel Tom Parker who is comically overacted by Tom Hanks. Hanks’ accent is flimsy at best and his makeup is unconvincing.
Parker is the villain of the piece and while that makes sense, considering it is well-documented that the Colonel exploited Elvis rather shamelessly, Hanks’ portrayal is more like a comic book supervillain rather than a real-life human being. The film would have been better served to give him less spotlight rather than making him the narrator of the story. Elvis’ parents feel one-dimensional as well, with his mother having no depth beyond being stereotypically overprotective, warning Elvis of evil and mostly serving to exist as character development for Presley once she dies. While the film does do a good job of showing how close Elvis was with his mother, the relationship is too exaggerated to be real.
Elvis’s father, Vernon is also treated similarly; he’s given no character beyond the baseline of being a quivering coward who sat back and let his son be exploited by Parker whilst living off Elvis himself. In reality, their relationship was way more complicated than that. While it is true that Vernon was installed as Elvis’ business manager so that Parker could run the show, the movie ignores how close the bond between Elvis and his father was in real life.
The film also suffers from Luhrmann’s lack of restraint as his maximalist style of filmmaking leaves the audience no breathing room. The editing is frantic. Luhrmann’s over-the-top ways are now a hallmark of his career but for a 3-hour film, it can often get jarring. And nowhere is it more jarring than during the part that re-tells Elvis’ childhood: suddenly, the film becomes a comic strip, a technique which is never re-used again, making it tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film.
The film’s soundtrack is, as one would expect, quite good with Butler doing a great job of capturing Elvis’ vocal stylings. The film’s vocals are mixed both with Butler and Elvis’ actual recordings with it often being hard to tell which is which, a testament to Butler’s training. The film adds modern songs to the soundtrack too such as Doja Cat’s ‘Vegas’ however, they do not particularly work, feeling out of place in a story set so long ago.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.