Elvis transcends the typical musician biopic by giving new life into the legendary American singer’s story. While audiences may know Elvis Presley, they didn’t know Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
While Elvis falls into many biopic tropes, Luhrmann brings his signature style to the film and glides the audience into one of the most energetic viewing experiences of the year. Elvis follows the Rock ‘n Roll icon’s career from its start to his death, but the presentation of this story is much more interesting than the typical cradle to grave biopic. The film begins with Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) fainting from what appears to be exhaustion and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) instructs a doctor to do something to get him on stage that night. From the very start of the film, it is overwhelmingly clear Luhrmann is much more empathetic towards his subject matter than some previous biopics (Bohemian Rhapsody). Elvis immediately lets its audience know this film will honor not just the career of Presley, but the person he was too.
The film goes back to Presley’s childhood as his family is one of a few white families in a primarily Black neighborhood where the film shows him introduced to Black music through both gospel choirs and R&B. Elvis zooms forward to Presley’s first performance in the film at the Louisiana Hayride in 1954. Presley is played as nervous, shaking with fright as the men in the audience yell regarding his appearance. There is a clear transition played perfectly by Butler as you see the fear instantly melt away as he becomes the Elvis Presley the world will come to know. Luhrmann’s strengths as a director truly shine in this scene as the kinetic directing combined with director of photography Mandy Walker’s sharp cinematography and Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa’s editing keep the frantic pace needed in this scene. While this scene is early on, the ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ performance sets so much of the film in motion. The audience can truly see Parker’s intentions with Presley, the singer’s switch from man to performer, and the effect Presley had on audiences.
The backbone of Elvis is the career exploitation Presley suffered at the hands of his manager, Parker. The moment Parker understands the effect Presley has on an audience, the film immediately begins following him sinking his teeth into the soon to be famous singer. The film is narrated by Parker as a testimony to his innocence, but the story shows the opposite, making for a unique viewing experience. The film follows as Presley is onboard with whatever Parker does as he sees results, but as his star takes off and he begins to see what other offers are out there, Presley begins to see Parker may not have his best interests at heart.
Elvis portrays the singer as a victim of his circumstances. While he is ultra-successful, he is taken advantage of at every corner by anyone who can profit from his talent. The people around Presley don’t seem to mind if he’s on drugs, drinking too much, or overworked as long as he can perform. The parallels are clear between Presley and many stars that have come after him and struggled through similar issues, but more publicly. The unfolding of the situation with Britney Spears, while entirely different, is something that felt familiar seeing what Presley was shown going through in Elvis. Presley is portrayed to have no agency over his career, constantly saying he is unable to do something because of Parker. The only time he truly shows any power over his career is during a should-be Christmas special in 1968, which leads to one of the standout scenes in the film with the performance of ‘If I Can Dream.’
An aspect most were nervous about in a film about Presley is his relationship with Black artists and culture. While the film could do more to show the dynamic between the Black community and Presley, it does at least touch on the subject. The film also skips over his later-in-life right wing ideologies. Another part of Presley’s life many were nervous to see unfold in the film is his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). When the two met in real life, Priscilla was only 14 years old and Presley was 24 years old, but the film skips over any details of their ages. While the actual Priscilla was not involved with the production of the film, she has attended many premieres and events, giving the film her blessing.
As many younger viewers watch the film, they may not have an understanding of what made Presley so special. Parker, in his narration, notes at their first encounter that Presley looked strange with his pink suit, puffy hair, and eyeliner. Men of that time simply didn’t do what Presley was doing with not just his appearance but his moves on stage. Luhrmann’s film shows what made Presley a sensation: it wasn’t his music; it was Presley himself. Presley brought out something in audiences, mostly women, that wasn’t seen before. Despite society trying to suppress urges Presley’s performances tended to bring out in audiences, his star power only continued to rise.
The heart of the film is Butler’s performance as Presley; the actor not only nails his cadence, physicality, and voice (yes, the accent), but he also allows modern audiences to understand what Presley brought to the stage. In what is a ‘star is born’ performance, Butler goes beyond the showman of Presley’s life and gives a heart and soul to the man he was. He combines effortlessly the charisma, charm, and soul of Presley to deliver not an impersonation but a once in a lifetime kind of performance. We have seen Presley on screen numerous times but never like Butler portrays him. Butler rises above any issues with the screenplay to always play Presley with such conviction, heart, and an understanding of the man Presley was.
Four-time Oscar Winner Catherine Martin’s production and costume design work is intricate, lavish, and unbelievably accurate. Not only did Martin reconstruct Graceland and the International Hotel from Las Vegas in Australia but she designed the most stunning costumes from casual period pieces to iconic jumpsuits. Martin’s work transports the audience throughout multiple decades, and it never feels confusing as her work shines in each segment of the film.
The music in the film is a true star and not just Presley’s biggest hits either. While Butler recorded or has his voice mixed into signature Presley songs throughout the film, the original songs and covers composed for Elvis are outstanding and fit the Luhrmann aesthetic to a tee. From the should-be Original Song contender ‘Vegas’ by Doja Cat to songs from Eminem to covers from Kacey Musgraves and Jack White, Elvis is jam packed with music for everyone. An amazing mashup featuring Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ reminds audiences of Lurhmann’s perfect ability to seamlessly blend eras together.
Elvis may be the most Luhrmann film to ever exist and that may divide some viewers, but the film is a roaring success because of Luhrmann’s taste for excess. The extravagant film is exactly what one could hope for a Presley biopic. Butler interjects everything he has into one of the best performances of the year. Elvis is full of emotion, soul, and power to not only show the electrifying performer Presley was, but the fully encompassed man he was.
Likely: Best Picture, Best Lead Actor (Austin Butler), Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound
Should be Considered: Best Director
Where to Watch: HBO Max; VOD
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky