Content Note: This article contains brief mention of sexual assault.

"I'm gonna be forty soon, and nobody's gonna remember me"Carlos Adampol Galindo / Wikimedia Commons

Elvis Aaron Presley: the King of Rock and Roll — at times a controversial figure, always a cultural icon. His life and Baz Luhrmann’s bizarre but instantly recognisable directorial style have much in common — they are each gaudy yet glamorous, at once absurd and electrifying. Luhrmann spins us through time, from Elvis’s poverty-stricken childhood to his flirtation with Beale Street and on through his insanely influential yet highly commercial career. He tells this tale through the unreliable narration of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis’s manipulative manager.

ELVIS, as a biopic should, has less documentation and more dramatisation. Dizzying shots through space establish a sense of mania but are slightly overused. Similarly, multiple exposures and split screens are flashy, eye-catching, and arguably bold creative decisions for a feature film (which sometimes seems more like a music video — a clever choice.) However, these montages at times feel frivolous; they look good for the sake of looking good rather than advancing the story. Not to mention, they add to the film’s exorbitant 159-minute run time. (For a more effective example of storytelling through a split screen, see Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer.)

“Butler’s gyrations and deep South drawl add credibility to his character”

Elvis tries on a range of personas, from military man to movie star, throughout his artistic journey. Major tonal shifts, as shown mostly through pacing, colourisation, and score, effectively differentiate between the young, starry-eyed singer, the politically driven “Elvis the Pelvis” and the bloated burn-out of his final days. From a purely visual perspective, each shot adds to the fairytale-esque frenzy that solidified Elvis as a superstar through carefully choreographed camerawork bolstered by meticulous post-production.

Speaking of superstars: Austin Butler is a fantastic and seemingly organic choice to capture the King. His Elvis impersonation earned him the role, but his transformation into the man himself is almost hyper-real. Butler’s gyrations and deep South drawl add credibility to his character — and stuck with him even after the film wrapped (just watch his interviews). An Academy nomination for Best Actor wouldn’t feel gratuitous.

“Tom Parker makes himself both the hero and the villain of the film”

Perhaps ELVIS’s strangest and least successful aspect is Tom Hanks’s performance as Tom Parker. Hank’s acting isn’t the problem, but rather his role itself begs the question: why is Parker driving the plot? Is the film about Elvis or something else entirely? Luhrmann loves a narrator, but unlike The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, Tom Parker makes himself both the hero and the villain of the film when, arguably, he shouldn’t even be a main character. While Nick’s idolisation of Gatsby is thematically relevant, Tom’s narration muddles the film’s true meaning.

In Luhrmann’s defence, all biopics run the risk of simply recounting historical events rather than saying something more significant. ELVIS manages to do both, deliberately addressing the political climate of the mid-1900s United States while remaining biographical. We see Presley’s childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he first encounters Black gospel music, which visibly determines his life’s course. Then, we hear his record, “That’s All Right” (originally recorded by Arthur Crudup), and he’s mistaken for a Black artist. Colonel Parker’s face lights up when someone says “he’s white”, realising the marketability of a white man who can bring Black music to the masses. Elvis rose to fame when the American South was still operating under segregation laws; his relationships with several Black musicians, including B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Little Richard (Alton Mason), are shown through frequent and conspicuous trips to Beale Street.

“Unfortunately... the film glazes over these less pleasant parts of his legacy”

While portrayed as an ally of the Civil Rights Movement, Elvis seemingly appropriated and capitalised on Black music, though some argue that by bringing it into the cultural foreground, Black artists could successfully follow suit. Elvis also dated Priscilla, his future wife, when she was 14 and he 24. He’s rumoured to have had several affairs during their marriage, with Priscilla even hinting that he’d sexually assaulted her. Unfortunately — though perhaps not surprisingly — the film glazes over these less pleasant parts of his legacy.


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In retrospect, ELVIS asks us: what caused the King’s downfall? Was it the fans, as Colonel Parker suggests in the film’s final minutes? Or was it the Colonel himself? We’re left to ponder these questions, indicating Luhrmann’s ability to provoke afterthought.

Neither the movie nor the man was perfect, but there perhaps was no director better-suited (yet more critically divisive) than Baz to do Elvis justice. While the plot occasionally falls short and feels bloated, it’s a visually stunning product and a fever dream from start to finish. We can debate whether Baz’s best work is behind him, but be sure that Butler, like young Elvis, is only getting started.