The King of Rock and Roll shakes up the big screen in Elvis, a worthwhile piece of entertainment for your summer.
Baz Luhrmann has always been a director with a distinctive visual style. Whether he’s applying it to ballroom dancing, classic literature, or something else, his style always lets the audience know this is his film. He doesn’t release films frequently either. These are just a couple of reasons why Elvis is worth paying attention to. It would be easy to dismiss this film as just another white male biopic. But there is more going on here. Elvis is vibrant and entertaining across many elements, especially the acting performances.
“I’m gonna show you who I really am.”
Luhrmann chooses to focus on the relationship between Elvis Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker is even the narrator. This is still Elvis’ story, though, and Luhrmann’s heightened tone is a perfect match with the ostentatious life of the King of Rock and Roll. Sometimes, Luhrmann uses flash zooms to exaggerate a character’s reaction. Or split screens to illustrate how one song goes from Southern blues riff to popular rock hit. The result feels a lot like contemporary music videos, but in a good way.
Speaking of the music, it’s phenomenal. Is that any surprise, though, considering Elvis’ catalog of hits? Other songs pop up, too. Singers like B.B. King and Little Richard appear in the story, enriching the influences of Elvis’ music. The script never lets the viewer forget the times Elvis lived in as well, and how things like the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations may have affected him. Luhrmann’s theatrical tendencies like the text graphic transitions don’t distract from the textured world of Elvis. Or at least, not much.
“We’re the same, you and I.”
Any actor who played Elvis was going to have his work cut out for him, particularly working opposite a veteran like Tom Hanks. But Austin Butler impressed me. I was surprised by how much, in fact. It’s not just that he looks uncannily like Elvis at each stage of his life. He nails the recognizable voice as well, in speaking and singing. He’s got the moves, too, which is essential. More than that, his emoting at a couple of memorable moments was remarkable. He also achieves a touch of mystery in Elvis that’s a key part of how a performer becomes iconic. Meanwhile, Hanks is clearly relishing the chance to ham it up as the self-serving con man the Colonel.
I want to single out the production values of this film, too because Luhrmann’s production and costume designer (and wife) Catherine Martin is always an integral part of his work. The team recreates sets and costumes with superb accuracy. From Elvis’ Beale Street suits in the ’50s, to his flamboyant ’70s getups for his Vegas residency, this film delivers.
The filmmakers have a strong sense of how over-the-top visuals and tone can meld with their subject matter for an entertainment experience than can often thrill you. That’s what Elvis does. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who left such a legacy in American music and, by extension, popular culture.
4 stars out of 5
Elvis is now in theaters.