elvis film review justsaying.ASIA

Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS is a Medley of Missed Opportunities

The King of Rock is brought to life in this biopic by Baz Luhrmann, and the jaw-dropping acting chops of Austin Butler – who also saves the film.

Reader Rating0 Votes
Can't help falling in love
Austin Butler as Elvis is a blessing - his acting and impression alone gets a 9/10. He is not just an impersonator. He is Elvis.
Decent third act
Devil in poor disguise
This film makes Tom Hanks mediocre
Unjust music choices that border on insulting
Narrative structure is incoherent and honestly sad... Elvis deserves better.

Ever so often, we’re blessed with the chance to peel back the layers of legends who’ve walked among us, and to understand the highs and lows of their lives like we were with them in the flesh. In many cases, they tend to teach us a contemporary lesson or two. And in the case of Elvis Presley, we know there’s no happy ending. 

Where there are biopics such as Rocketman that meld seamless storytelling with pomp and flare, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis achieves the latter with a cast that puts on a backbreaking, pelvis-shaking performance. But the same can’t be said about its storytelling, which grates in execution. 

Elvis is narrated from the villain’s point of view

While that might sound interesting enough, the narrative choice achieves so much and so little. The film is set up through the eyes of Colonel Tom Parker (portrayed by Tom Hanks), Elvis’ manager since boyhood, right up till the star’s passing, as well as his time performing at Las Vegas International Hotel, where he’d been cornered into a multiple-year residency despite dreaming of touring the world. 

And since we all know how this story ends (with the Colonel having screwed Elvis over his whole life), we get to experience the shifting tone of the narrator, who is set up as an almost-charming old businessman who later turns into a desperate gnat with a dark secret. 

Needless to say, this allows us to somewhat understand the hold that this man might have had on Elvis. We experience the undoing of Elvis while getting to see his moments of hesitation and desperation to find his old voice back, and other times when Elvis is backed into a corner. 

Tom Hanks as the Colonel looks akin to The Penguin as he lights a cigar.
Tom Hanks as the Colonel looks akin to The Penguin as he lights a cigar.

But even Tom Hanks, at his most complex, couldn’t save the film from its inconsistent narrator. Narration often disappears when convenient to plot to allow for neutral viewpoints, contributing to a narrative that’s largely served in bits and pieces, muddling the film’s impact tremendously. 

Most of what makes this forgivable is the cast, which is reason enough to go and watch this film in theatres. 

The way Austin Butler wields the shoes of Elvis-the-Pelvis is loud with sensual fervour and disciplined-but-raucous showmanship, while also soft, naive, and boyish. You’ll certainly feel one with the many women pictured in this film screaming, hearts fluttering, for the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis’ appeal is undeniable, and Austin Butler certainly holds up with hingeless hips, and buttery vocal delivery that floats out of his mouth.

Elvis Presley has many wiggles and so does Austin Butler.
Elvis Presley has many wiggles and so does Austin Butler.

Tom Hanks’ unmistakable talent shines despite the Colonel’s washed out character, and special mentions go to Dacre Montgomery who plays Steve Binder, the producer of Elvis’ comeback special. Binder, who enables Elvis’ return to music on his terms, is a large threat to the Colonel, who has dedicated his life to making Elvis his very own dance monkey.

Unfortunately, the introduction of this conflict takes place after much has already been lost in terms of pacing and storytelling structure. And while that might seem like there’s more time for us to have enjoyed Elvis’ rise to fame, what ensues in the film is quite the contrary.

Weighed down by the Colonel playing the crowing narrator, the film spends an unnecessary amount of its set up depicting the Colonel’s journey to acquiring Elvis as his own talent.

The film shuttles back and forth, from try-hard jukebox musical to dramatic period piece in a drawl. And, with too little to hear from Elvis himself.

There’s much to be loved about the setting of the film, particularly in Elvis’ youth as a boy from Tupelo, Mississipi. It allows you to bask in the vibrant African-American blues and church gospel culture, which is what forms the foundations for Elvis’ signature sound.

In showing how Elvis’ family background and upbringing shaped his persona, we see how the star was, first and foremost, a man dedicated to music and its ability to move, and perhaps not someone who was appropriating African-American music for personal gain. We also get to spend intimate moments with Elvis as he grieves through the loss of personal idols who’d shaped his music and being.

With that said… Baz Luhrrman’s bazzmatazz was definitely not the best directing choice for this film. The cinematography is sweeping and kaleidoscopic, an apt visual representation of the turmoil that was ever-present in Elvis’ life, through all of the glitz and glamour. But the narrative structure is far too self-indulgent, and chock full of moments that are plain weird.

Oddly enough, we spend little time with Elvis’ music in performances, but rather, with his songs as musical accompaniment to moments in the film. And, most confoundingly, these are modern covers that don’t do any justice to Elvis’ rendition. If you were looking to live the immersive euphoria of an Elvis performance, you will find it minimally here.

Some of the music choices in the film also border on disrespect, with cuts to African-American locations being butchered by bursts of stereotypically modern day rap. While rap music is a strong art of African-American culture, it feels blatantly stereotypical to utilise it in a film and era that has been swept by the entrancing blues. It completely breaks the immersion of the film, and in all, it’s likely that too much has been pegged to the musical collaborations announced around the film.

One thing to note is also that if you’re looking for accuracy, the film skirts many of the questionable parts of Elvis’ life. It paints a sad but pretty picture that makes you want to just reach out and give him a hug.

There are many things that make this an unsatisfying watch, but for what it’s worth, it still features a cast whose performance to die for and the roller coaster story of a fire-eyed man who charmed the world despite having never achieved his dream of touring it. And that’s what makes every minute that can be spent with him one to be grateful for.

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is out now in all theatres.