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Elvis Movie Review

Elvis (2022) movie poster

Theatrical Release: June 24, 2022 / Running Time: 159 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Baz Luhrmann / Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Jeremy Doner (story & screenplay); Craig Pearce, Sam Bromell (screenplay)

Cast: Austin Butler (Elvis Presley), Tom Hanks (Colonel Tom Parker), Olivia DeJonge (Priscilla Presley), Helen Thomson (Gladys Presley), Richard Roxburgh (Vernon Presley), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (B.B. King), Xavier Samuel (Scotty Moore), David Wenham (Hank Snow), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jimmie Rodgers Snow), Luke Bracey (Jerry Schilling), Dacre Montgomery (Steve Binder)


The biopic ranks alongside the inspirational true sports drama as one of the safest and most conventional forms we find in modern cinema. The musician biopic is its own familiar subgenre, one ubiquitous enough to have inspired a classic parody but dependable enough to still be employed on a regular basis.

Elvis, as you can guess, adds to the tradition and sets its focus on one of the most iconic musicians to have ever lived. You'd figure the life and career of Elvis Presley would have been dramatized for the big screen decades ago, but full-fledged biography has been limited to television, most notably John Carpenter's 1979 miniseries starring Kurt Russell. To fill this void without subjecting us to the familiar trajectory of highs and lows, Warner Bros. has tapped Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby), a writer-director who is anything but safe and conventional.

The results are highly agreeable, with Luhrmann not only supplying his signature and always welcome flair but also finding ways to present Presley's story that do not render it ordinary and predictable.

Even someone with just a primitive knowledge of popular music and culture must be aware of Presley's emergence in the 1950s as a new, quickly-embraced sound. Presley's distinctive blend of genres, flashy showmanship, and unprecedented popularity paved the way for other influential rock 'n roll acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to follow. But arguably no solo artist has impact and legacy that rival Presley's. His death at the age of 42 was late enough to give his career several distinct phases and followings, yet early enough to grant him the immortality of a genius taken too soon.

Elvis, which Luhrmann co-wrote with his regular collaborator Craig Pearce and two less experienced others, covers these phases, but without taking a mundane linear approach. The film holds dual focuses as it explores the complicated relationship between southern boy Presley (Austin Butler) and his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The two men couldn't be more different in appearance, personality, and motivation. And yet they co-exist and long thrive on the stage prowess of Elvis and the cunning business acumen of Parker.

While Elvis' many devout fans undoubtedly know the history of these two figures, the typical viewer probably will not, which imbues the narrative with a greater level of fascination than it might otherwise have. Then again, having Presley's life story in the hands of the flamboyant Luhrmann ensured this would not be a dull movie no matter the focus.

Like many of the director's other films, this one is obviously full of music. Impressively, instead of relying upon old recordings and lip-synching, Luhrmann has gotten Butler to perform and record a number of familiar tunes and with all the penache and precision you want. It's easy for the casual Elvis fan to mistake the songs for Elvis' originals. Butler is just that good at recreating Elvis' voice and mannerisms.

This bravado lead performance could not have been foretold by the 30-year-old American's few prior film credits, which include the modest likes of Aliens in the Attic and Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure. If Butler never again enjoys a role this robust and high-profile (a likely outcome), then he'll still have turned in a performance much more meaningful and nuanced than Academy Award winner Rami Malek's Freddie Mercury and probably also above and beyond anything Presley himself did in his Hollywood heyday.

Holding his own across from Butler is Hanks, whose legendary status in American cinema seems to work against him at this point. Hanks is too iconic to disappear in a role like this as intended, but he's also too good an actor to limit himself to more everyman heroes. Colonel Tom is not the jovial discoverer he first appears to be. Branding himself "The Snowman" in narration that pervades this long film, Hanks sports extreme jowels, a rounded beak of a nose, and what appears to be at least a few dozen pounds of fat. The prosthetic work is competent, although it stands out because Hanks, who famously caught COVID during this Australian production, does not look like himself. He looks more like the real life person he's portraying than he did like Walt Disney or Mister Rogers, so at least there's that.

Luhrmann presents Presley through an unmistakably contemporary lens. The film is not oblivious to black artists' influence on Presley and the role his race played in his advancement. Elvis tries to depict what some have deemed profitable plagairism in a thoughtful and accurate context, leaving no question over Presley's appreciation for the black community and framing this in terms of the woeful racial politics of the time. Some will surely object to how this is handled, but there is little actual cause for concern on this front.

Musician biopics are usually well-made and chockfull of entertainment value. Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably the most extensively maligned entry in the subgenre, still grossed nearly a billion dollars worlwide and won multiple Oscars. The problem is that there usually is not much room for creativity or unpredictability, the aforementioned parody (2007's hilarious Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) being the rare exception. Elvis, gladly, manages to break through the familiar mold, wowing us with its dramatics and cinematic craft.

Whether or not the movie wins over the public or remains in the industry's consciousness to compete for Oscars nine months from now, it currently stands as one of 2022's most admirable works. It is the rare summer attraction that isn't designed to sell merchandise or tease a sequel. Instead, it manages to present a very old celebrity in a compelling and thought-provoking new light, recalling not just Presley's charisma and convictions but the exhaustion and enablers that endangered them, a narrative that can obviously and unfortunately be applied to many talented musicians.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Lightyear The Black Phone Top Gun: Maverick Jurassic World: Dominion
Directed by Baz Luhrmann: The Great Gatsby Strictly Ballroom
Elvis: Elvis: That's The Way It Is
Musician Biopics: Rocket Man Bohemian Rhapsody Jersey Boys

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Reviewed June 24, 2022.

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