2022, PG-13, 159 min. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Starring Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Nicholas Bell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alton Mason, Luke Bracey, David Wenham, Richard Roxburgh, Natasha Bassett, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Elizabeth Cullen.
REVIEWED By Tim Stegall, Fri., June 24, 2022
Since his death 45 years ago (three years longer than he lived), rock & roll legend Elvis Presley has been portrayed on screens large and small countless times. Five such projects all bear the simple title Elvis, including a single-season 1990 TV series concentrating on the Sun Records era, and 2005’s mini-series featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the title role. The best was the first: A three hour 1979 TV movie directed by John Carpenter, which began his long association with Kurt Russell, who has thus far held the title as the onscreen Elvis to beat. Russell might have finally met his match in Austin Butler, star of the latest Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s summer blockbuster turn at the tale.
2022’s Elvis is a typical Luhrmann film: lush, grandiose, epic, stylish to the millionth degree. It plays fast and loose with the timeline a few times, such as having Presley perform “Trouble,” written in 1958 by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for the movie King Creole, at a key Memphis date in 1956. Or portraying Presley’s career under threat from real-life segregationist Sen. Jim Eastland (Bell), but seemingly moving the Dixiecrat from Mississippi to Tennessee in service of the story arc. Or claiming Presley was offered Army service rather than face the ruin of his astronomical career trajectory, because he was such a threat to the established order. Sure, this is not a documentary, and dramatic license is a legitimate cinematic tool. So if Quentin Tarantino can have Rick Dalton save Sharon Tate from the Manson Family, then Luhrmann can give Elvis the choice of the Army or jail for shaking his moneymaker onstage and giving the good daughters of Dixie indecent thoughts.
Also, does the timeless nature of Elvis Presley’s music really require the hip-hop remixes that are also another Luhrmann soundtrack hallmark? True, cementing Presley’s connection to Black music by boomeranging it through Black music’s current generation is interesting. But Luhrmann actually makes Presley’s spiritual and musical debt concrete by portraying B.B. King (Harrison Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Little Richard (Mason), and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr. in a cameo). All are fully fleshed characters integral to the storyline, as all were to rock & roll’s development. Dropping dope beats into “That’s All Right” kinda overstates the point.
From a technical standpoint, the production is dazzling. The use of split screens and carefully controlled color saturation as storytelling elements are fantastic. The hair and costuming is deadly accurate – every era portrayed looks documentary-real. Elvis’ plot is the complicated relationship between narrator Col. Tom Parker (Hanks) and Presley. This was an artist with uncanny instincts, and Parker’s carny-bred con artistry frequently spayed and neutered his exclusive client. Luhrmann's film captures their bizarre dynamic beautifully. It helps having brilliant actors: Parker might be one of Hanks’ rare villains, but he simultaneously humanizes him. (However, his bizarre choice to give Parker a Dutch accent he never had makes you expect him to utter at any moment, “No, Mr. Bond. I want you to die!”) And Butler inhabits the role of Elvis Presley the way Jim Carrey reincarnated Andy Kaufman. It’s astonishing watching the former Nickelodeon star practically slip on Presley’s skin and operate his voice box, doing most of the vocals himself. Most importantly, he reveals the man swiveling those hips. If Butler and Hanks don’t win Oscars next year, the Academy is full of fools, fools, fools.
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Elvis, Baz Luhrmann, Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Nicholas Bell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alton Mason, Luke Bracey, David Wenham, Richard Roxburgh, Natasha Bassett, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Elizabeth Cullen