Australian auteur – to call him a filmmaker wouldn’t be accurate – Baz Luhrmann is back, nine years after his spectacular take on THE GREAT GATSBY. True to form, ELVIS is much more than a biopic. It’s a fever dream of a man who lives on in the imaginations of everyone who grew up with him or who love his music. And, with a magnetic performance by Austin Butler, you might just be saying to yourself, “Rami who?” when the lights come up in the cinema.
ELVIS looks at the life, assuming he’s dead, of course, and extraordinary music of the King of Rock and Roll (Butler, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD) seen through the eyes of his manager Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, NEWS OF THE WORLD; GREYHOUND). The story charts his meteoric rise from when he was a young lad growing up in poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi, who was influenced by the music of his Black neighbours, to his status as an entertainment legend, singing to thousands of adoring fans every night at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. When he was barely 20 years old, Parker saw the young man’s potential and knew how to exploit it to maximum effect. It was a complicated relationship and one that cost Elvis his life.
Doing an Elvis biopic was always going to be a crapshoot, which is probably why no one ever tackled it before. (A two-part TV documentary produced for HBO came out in 2018 and was well received.) The man lives too vividly in our collective conscience, and with so many Elvis impersonators who have been seen on film, TV and even out on the street for so many years, any Elvis film would risk falling into kitsch territory. So who better than Luhrmann to take on the challenge?
Not surprisingly, Luhrmann brings his usual “Bazziness” to the film. ELVIS is full of colour and razzmatazz, fabulous costumes by Prada and Miu Miu, split-screens and graphics popping up all over the screen, and a bitching soundtrack of remixed Elvis songs and those by some of the artists who influenced him but modernized, as well as some new tunes from the likes of Doja Cat, Eminem & CeeLo Green, Kacey Musgraves and Nardo Wick. Butler, too, gets in on the act, singing the King’s early works including “Hound Dog”, “Trouble” and “Baby, Let’s Play House”. As for that last number, in the movie, Butler shows audiences what a huge star both he and Elvis are/were about to become. The young actor exudes early Brad Pitt-level charisma and it won’t surprise me if he cops an Oscar nomination for this performance. Seriously, it’s that good.
For a biopic, the film’s running time of just over 2-1/2 hours is slightly on the long side and the story drags a bit in the second half. Luhrmann has said, though, that there’s a four-hour version available. I would pay to see that! Clearly, some of Elvis’ seminal moments were dropped from the final cut, including his third appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” where the cameras never strayed below his waist. Judging from the audience’s reaction though, and you can watch it on YouTube, there was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on down there. The story also glosses over both his movie career and his early relationship with Priscilla, who was just 14 when they met, and completely skips over both his meeting with US President Richard Nixon and his influence on American culture and Las Vegas for that matter. I assume they’re all dealt with in the director’s cut. But none of those are dealbreakers and the movie is immensely entertaining. It’s grand slams all the way for Luhrmann and Butler.
ELVIS opens in Hong Kong today (June 23rd) and pretty much everywhere else in the world on Friday. Don’t wait for it to go to HBO Max. It needs to be seen on the big screen. Long live the King!
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