Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 40 minutes, Director – Baz Luhrmann
Biopic following the career of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) and the way in which it was controlled by his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
When it was announced that Baz Luhrmann was going to be tackling an Elvis Presley biopic my main interest in the project was always in regards to how one of cinema’s most maximalist directors would tackle a life story. Well, the answer is in his usual style. By throwing a few bucketloads of showbiz at the spinning camera. Once again, Luhrmann shows himself to potentially be quite a hit-or-miss director. However, as with a handful of his films, if you’re able to get past the intensity of the first 20 minutes – where much of the glitz and glamour is condensed – there’s a fair deal to like about Elvis.
Perhaps it helps that, at least for the first half, the film focuses on the showmanship of the King of Rock and Roll (Austin Butler). Depicting just what drew people to him and his music, and indeed those to protest it and his apparent dance moves and stage persona – furious headlines spread across America calling him ‘Elvis The Pelvis’. However, despite the uproar being about Presley it feels odd that the titular figure feels almost like support in his own life story. Instead the events are remembered by his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks – an understandably criticised performance which feels like his turn in the Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers turned up to 11 and in a fat suit, it might take some getting used to but it’s certainly not dreadful) as he finally finds the show and act that can make him rich – “he was a taste of forbidden fruit… He was the greatest carnival attraction I had ever seen”.
However, as the film moves along, reaching it’s second half, Butler’s performance takes more of a centre stage as the focus also shifts onto Elvis’ own thought process and set of actions. Beginning to try to break free from the overall control of his played-as-villain manager. It takes a while to truly realise just how good Butler’s performance is due to the fact that the spotlight appears to not always be on him for so long, but when that light is finally placed upon him the strength of his performance shines. It allows for you to engage with the film, and its central figure, on a further level above the initial display of showmanship.
The highlight comes in the form of the surprise performance of If I Can Dream in the ’68 Comeback Special. Little is added to the moment as it largely focuses on Elvis singing. Allowing the song and moment to speak for itself a forceful punch of emotion is created as the song swells creating a powerful ‘wow’ moment, free from the flashiness of the rest of the film. It’s these moments where Elvis is the core focus where the film works best and engages you the most. Dropping the visual display around it and allowing certain points to exist in and speak for themselves. This isn’t to say that the surroundings don’t work, as the film charts Elvis’ Vegas residency there’s certainly a push from Luhrmann’s style – one which helps keep you engaged as the nearly two and three quarter hour run-time begins to show.
As a whole the film begins to near its conclusion you can feel it beginning to slow down and wanting to wrap up as the run-time starts to be felt. There are still elements that it wants to get in and check before the credits begin to roll, and it does them well enough but still with the lingering feeling of a slightly pushing run-time, despite the still engaging nature that it mostly manages to hold fairly well throughout – allowing for its head to be held above water. The idea of showmanship comes back round every now and then, mostly as we look through the eyes, or mind, of Colonel Tom Parker as he’s told that his “sideshow is a jackpot”. When the film leans this way it’s clear that it’s more about what people loved about Elvis rather than Elvis himself. However, when looking at the man himself, particularly thanks to Austin Butler’s strong central performance, and allowing moments to just exist as themselves – which there are a number of – the film is at its strongest. While this might be another hit-or-miss film from Luhrmann, if you can get past the spinning catharsis of the opening 20 minutes, there’s enough to enjoy and engage with to make for worthwhile, if not always in-depth, viewing.
When not throwing everything at the camera and looking more at the man himself, finely performed by Austin Butler, instead of his showmanship Elvis is at its best. The surroundings are fine and still manage to engage you, however the feeling lies that that’s perhaps what pushes the run-time.