The most recent popular musician to be the subject of a biopic is the classic rock icon, Elvis Presley. “Elvis” is a dazzling, almost brutally honest look at one of the most successful selling solo artists in the world, told through the perspective of his tumultuous relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
The decision to break away from the traditional biopic formula by including narration from an antagonist in the main character’s life is a risky choice, and unfortunately doesn’t fully pay off.
Tom Hanks’ performance as the narrator and Elvis’ conniving manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is not a bad one, however his constant leering gaze and grating voice becomes somewhat burdensome.
Especially as the space between his narration grows, his role as narrator is almost forgotten until Hanks’ “interesting” accented voice pipes back up to remind the audience about “destiny” and “his boy.”
But for all the annoyance Hanks' performance as the Colonel brings, it is Austin Butler who continuously steals the show with a breathtaking performance as the iconically dubbed “King of Rock and Roll.”
From the first performance “That’s All Right,” where Butler shows Elvis’ blossoming iconic hip thrusts and extravagant outfits, to the tragically beautiful rendition of “Unchained Melody,” where he shows the final days of a once great singer, Butler brings an amazing fragility to the role.
Butler also gives Elvis a tragic addiction to the love of the audience, something the film frequently comments on as a seldom spoken effect of fame. This is highlighted in one of the best scenes of the film, where a drug abusing Elvis speaks to his wife about his fading star and lack of a truly established career.
The film gives Elvis a clever but sad self awareness about the direction of his career near the end of his life which transforms what should be rousing feel-good songs like “Trouble,” “Suspicious Minds,” or “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and makes them anthems to his pain and unhappiness.
The decision to give Elvis this awareness about how far he has sunk is a risky choice made by director Baz Luhrmann that, unlike the narration, pays off.
Luhrmann, known for such iconic films like “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet,” is famous for his high energy, stylized editing and design, and nowhere is this better utilized than in this film.
In many numbers, like Elvis’ first performance or his five year Las Vegas run, Luhrmann combines super eight style footage, newspaper photos, Butler’s enchanting performance and high energy editing to create spectacular numbers that allow headlines about Elvis’ “scandalous” performances to fly across the screen with resounding impact.
Luhrmann also makes the conscious and commendable decision to highlight the huge influence Black music had on Elvis growing up and when forming his act.
From hearing and then recording songs like Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog’ to copying Little Richard’s high energy performances, Luhrmann finally acknowledges that the Elvis that is loved would not be who he was without the work of Black artists whose work was never fully recognized and often credited directly to Elvis Presley.
The legacy of Elvis is not an easy one to bring to the screen, however Luhrmann and his team do a fantastic job bringing a classic rock star to a new generation of fans.