Director Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner
Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh
Baz Luhrmann has made some fantastic films (The Great Gatsby, Strictly Ballroom) with a completely original sense of vision. Sometimes there’s more dazzle than substance (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, The Get Down). Finding that he was going to work with the Presley family to make a documentary about the singer’s famed existence, it made one wonder if they’d go closer to Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman. It turns out to be a little of both.
The Queen biopic is so intent on diefying Freddy Mercury, they forgot to make sure he was more approachably human. Rocketman holds no such compunction. Elton John, thankfully realizes that warts and all make someone more real, even if rthey mix up the songs a bit from the way we remember their chronology.
The Luhrmann effect on a film is to tell a gritty story underneath a ton of glitz. The glitz here is, appropriately, reserved for the Vegas years. Up to that point, we hear some creative editing for both the music and the films. We get young Elvis, living in the black part of Mississippi, experiencing a musical conversion between observing a low rent bar on one side of the street to a religious revival on the other.
We then have to meet Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, a literal Carny who is, of course, not someone to trust. Parker sees Presley perform at a Louisiana Hayride performance and immediately snatches him up, becoming the exclusive manager of his burgeoning career. Most people who have seen any “under my wing” story knows how this will play out. That it’s Hanks giving an overly labored performance (like he does most of the time, post 2000) takes the viewer out of the feeling of being there first hand. We can never NOT think it’s Hanks in a fat suit, literally hamming it up.
Butler, on the other hand, gives us a great performance. His Presley walks the line between devout Christian, acolyte of black music and straight up sex appeal that Presely the man represented for his short time as the King of Rock-n-Roll.
The film brushes past many musically historical moments. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it menagerie of events meant to give the viewer an understanding that there is no dark underbelly to Presley’s past. His music came from a place as pure as the best parts of America. We get the feeling that he could have been happy living near Beale Street the rest of his life were it not for the devious undermining of that wretched Tom Hanks Parker. If that seems a little simple, it still rings pretty true.
The 60’s and 70’s are brushed by, with flourishes in all of the places that we have become familiar with. He serves in the military, meets Priscilla and loses his mother. This starts a slide that he doesn’t see until he becomes friends with people who inspire him. We see the comback special, then the endless nights in Vegas. The show he puts on, however, is the culmination of everything that he loved so much as a child. It’s just covered with glitz, glamour, drugs and a seeming life sentence of performing night after night.
I find the best things about Elvis are the parts that don’t have Hanks overdressed and over accented for the camera. Outside of Hanks, Elvis is a nice montage of history. Just like his life. Blink and you’ll miss it. When Luhrmann isn’t placating the apparent ego of one of today’s most famous actors, he does a good job showing us the essence of one of our greatest performers. He keeps the flash to a minimum and shows us an American icon that was rightly loved by the world.
(***1/2 out of *****)