Weekend Watch: Elvis
The life of the King is brought back to screens
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
Welcome to the latest edition of Weekend Watch, in which I recommend (or occasionally warn against) movies or TV shows I’ve been checking out. This week, The King is back. Follow James on Twitter: @jamwhite
Given how larger-than-life Elvis Presley always appeared, he seemed the perfect fit for the ostentatious stylistic filmmaking of Baz Luhrmann, who has brought us movies including Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby. As it turns out, it’s largely a good combination, though Luhrmann’s reluctance to go much beyond the surface hurts the film’s effectiveness.
The biggest hurdle that the Australian writer, producer and director must overcome here is that Elvis’ story is one of the most well-known, though perhaps misunderstood in showbiz history. A true talent who had music and mojo in his blood, Elvis grew to become a giant star of rock’n’roll and movies (for a time, at least on the latter front). He’s someone that everyone thinks they can impersonate, his swivelling hips and curled lips among the most recognisable images in music.
He was also a human being with feelings and foibles and even he couldn’t survive being fed to the machine of entertainment.
Luhrmann’s endlessly-roaming camera, love of montage and stylish flourishes certainly work well here – he’s at his best when bringing performances to life. One early stage moment, in which Presley’s sex appeal sweeps through the women of the audience like a zombie outbreak is a classic scene in the making, a viral sensation years before the word had that meaning in wider consciousness. And part of that is thanks to the power of the film’s leading man.
Austin Butler proves to be a magnetic, dynamic star, offering a performance that seems destined to land him in awards territory later in the year. To Presley, he brings a sweetness and sensitivity that the rest of the story doesn’t really bother to define and is convincing as both a young man and the older, bloated, drug-addicted man who died in 1977. He’s clearly the best thing in the film, which is somewhat unusual given the presence of Tom Hanks, who often offers up the greatest performance in any given move.
Hanks here is playing Colonel Tom Parker, the shady, mysterious impresario who helped shape Elvis into becoming one of the most famous people on the planet, while also attached like a parasite, siphoning money away and threatening lawsuits when Presley tried to break away from his influence. Buried in prosthetics and shooting for an accent that he doesn’t always quite nail, Hanks is the movie’s unreliable narrator, Parker trying to excuse his own behaviour and putting the blame for Presley’s downfall squarely on the man’s own need for audience approval.
Luhrmann, like his narrator, and despite approval from the Presley estate, isn’t interested in a completely factual account of Elvis’ life, preferring the flash and dazzle of his big successes and the dark shades of his personal tribulations. And, perhaps given the family’s consultation, his wife Priscilla (played by Olivia DeJonge) is herself a mere shadow in his life, introduced memorably but then largely considered a side note until the end of their marriage in 1973. Her age at the time they met (14, for the record) is also glossed over, and various unsavoury elements of Elvis’ life (guns, the fact that his career largely existed thanks to African American music, and performers who never benefitted the way he did) mostly shaved away because they’d bring us all down too much and Luhrmann wants to party.
It’s an approach to the story that works for the most part, though the script can’t match the visuals and the result is an unbalanced one. Still, it’s certainly a spectacle, even if it does feel empty in parts.
Elvis is in US and UK cinemas now.