Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Review by Iva Apostolova
This movie about the life and music of the legendary king of rock Elvis Presley and directed by the Australian sensation Baz Luhrmann is nothing short of epic! I have a confession to make – I have loved Baz Luhrmann through his highs (Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby) as well as his lows (the box-office bomb Australia). I simply can’t get enough of his over-the-top, highly stylized and theatrical cinematography. Two years in the making, I think Elvis is his best work yet.
A couple of things one should know about Luhrmann. He doesn’t do biopics. All his movies are stories about people, real or fictional, and their relationships. And Elvis is no exception. The main focus of the movie is on the complicated, dysfunctional, extremely toxic and destructive relationship between Elvis and his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker. Even wife Priscilla doesn’t get much screen time. Another thing to understand about Luhrmann’s cinematic stories is that he certainly does his homework and always stays true to the story. Take The Great Gatsby, for example. The movie does not use the fantastic costumes and breathtaking cinematic sequences as a distraction from the story line; on the contrary, the dialogue is faithful to the letter to Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.
The same is true for Elvis. If you watch even one interview with Tom Hanks (Colonel Parker) or Austin Butler (Elvis), you will understand the lengths to which Luhrmann has gone to prepare both cast and crew, including working with the brilliant Aussie costume designer Catherine Martin, who has worked with Luhrmann on three other movies. Instead of making exact replicas of some of Elvis’s most iconic costumes from Graceland (his comeback leather piece as well as the onesies from his Vegas shows, for example), Martin has recreated multiple versions of the same piece to fit Butler’s physique and allow him to move freely on stage.
Speaking of Butler, I have not seen such vulnerability and pure longing to connect with the audience since forever, really. From Elvis’s first jittery performance in front of a live audience in Tennessee, where even his hair is shaking with nerves, to his last sold-out concert in Vegas, Butler’s blue eyes remain warm and seeking. And if this weren’t enough, he also sings in the movie, something which apparently permanently changed his own voice.
On the topic of music, all of Luhrmann’s movies have soundtracks to die for. Apart from Elvis’s own songs, you will hear original music from Swae Lee and Diplo, Doja Cat, CeeLo Green, Eminem, Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak. Luhrmann has always been a genius when it comes to incorporating old and contemporary music genres. If you thought Elvis’s velvety voice wouldn’t mix well with rap, allow yourself to be surprised.
Elvis, though, is not a sugar-coated tribute to the best-selling single artist of all time. On the contrary, Luhrmann skillfully and without over-sentimentalizing manages to capture the complicated relationship between Elvis’s music and the Black music of the American South, which the artist always considered his musical home. As Butler himself notes in one interview, no Black music, no Elvis, it’s as simple as that. Luhrmann expertly gives us a snapshot of the dark, segregated reality of the American South in the 50s and 60s, which Elvis navigated with as much grace as anyone could.
At the same time, the director makes us painfully aware of Elvis’s own demons, some of which were single-handedly created or simply nurtured by Parker, his manipulative, Machiavellian manager, brilliantly portrayed by Hanks.
I would say that Elvis is a real spectacle, in the original sense of the word – a grand production worth witnessing. As far as I am concerned, it does the job it has set out to do, namely, do justice to Elvis’s legacy.
Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College.
Running time: 2 hours 39 minutes
Playing in theatres