There have been so many movies about Elvis Presley that the only way to do it again is to do what Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann has done with Elvis. He tells Presley's story with grand, over-the-top flourishes, making every step in the singer's professional journey feel mega-iconic. There's nothing in the story that we don't already know, nor is there any fresh perspective on it. That's the biggest flaw. The style, though, is what sells the picture. Luhrmann has conceived a glorious tribute to the King of Rock and Roll.
And he's done it by making Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) the person whose POV we see everything through. He's looking to manage an act that will serve as his meal ticket, and gets one upon hearing Elvis (Austin Butler), a young white singer whose musical style has been greatly influenced by the gospel and R&B singers he's obsessed with. Upon seeing a crowd of girls lose their minds during one of his live performances, Parker schemes to become Elvis's manager. Elvis, for his part, likes the promises of great success, which mean he will be able to provide a nice home for his parents.
From there, Elvis hits all the notes you expect it to. Accusations of obscenity due to his pelvis-thrusting onstage. Having to rein in his style for television. Meeting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and fathering Lisa Marie. Time in the service. A run of terrible movies. The Christmas special. The Vegas residency. The drug abuse. The film has so much to cram in that even a 159-minute running time isn't enough to give every important aspect its due. Priscilla, in particular, is a paper-thin, barely-utilized character – an odd choice given how important she was in Presley's life.
Despite the familiarity of the material, Luhrmann's energetic, glitzy approach helps it go down smoothly. He splits the screen into sections and has picture-in-picture effects, utilizes onscreen graphics, swirls his camera around, abruptly zooms in on something, overlaps images, and so on. The cumulative effect is that you get wrapped up in the whirlwind of Presley's career, so that it feels like as much of a rush to you as it must have felt to him. The director wisely slows down every so often, in order to emphasize an important point, as when Elvis locks horns with Parker over the direction of his Christmas special. He wants to do his thing, whereas his manager wants him to appease the sponsor by singing holiday songs.
Moments like that get to the core of Elvis. At heart, the film is about Parker's exploitation of Presley, specifically how he eventually began making choices that were far better for himself than for his client, leading to the sad, drug-addled person the King became. Honestly, I don't know what Tom Hanks is doing here. He's buried underneath prosthetics to make his face fuller and rounder, and he speaks in a non-descript accident. It's fundamentally odd, yet it totally works because those choices serve to make Parker an appropriately off-putting character. Hanks has never done a performance like this before. It's exhilarating to see him take a wild swing.
Austin Butler is also very good. A prime danger in playing Elvis is doing a caricature of him. The actor deftly avoids that, finding the person behind the image (and, for that matter, underneath Luhrmann's visual trappings). Early scenes showing Presley's magnetism and later scenes depicting his decline are especially strong, as Butler conveys both with a sense of authenticity.
Despite Elvis going over material we all know, the glossy style is fun and an obvious affection for Presley shines through at all times. In the end, we're left with valid questions: What would Elvis have done had he broken away from Parker at some point? Would he have floundered, or taken his gifts to some astonishing new level? And would he have died at 42? Yes, those questions have been asked before. The movie asks them in a handsomely-mounted production that's entertaining, if not exactly revelatory.
out of four
Elvis is rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material, and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 39 minutes.