Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., David Wenham, Xavier Samuel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Yola Quartey, Alton Mason, Luke Bracey, Natasha Bassett, Leon Ford, Kate Mulvany, Josh McConville, Gary Clark, Jr., Christopher Sommers, Cle Morgan, Shonka Dukureh
Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Don’t
Story by Baz Luhrmann and Jeremy Doner
Produced by Baz Luhrmann, Gail Berman, Catherine Martin, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss
Cinematography by Mandy Walker
Edited by Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond
Musical score by Elliott Wheeler
By Matt Neufeld
Lord almighty, I see the temperatures rising in heated-up movie theaters during the weekend of June 24-26, 2022, as director Baz Luhrmann’s whirring, stirring, rollercoasting, rocking and rolling–and dazzling and continuously entertaining–biography of Elvis Presley, “Elvis,” lands with full volume at 11 at theaters with all of the attendant razzle-dazzle, pizzazz, glimmer, glamour, rhinestone, leather and pure showbiz and pure rock and roll spectacle that even Elvis himself would have appreciated and loved.
Suspicious minds don’t have to be cruel because Luhrmann, who also co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced, has delivered, with his own unique and innovative style–albeit, granted, at times also a somewhat frustrating and overly-frenetic style, yes–a movie that ends up being above-average, consistently watchable and enjoyable, recommended, and, due mainly to Luhrmann’s slightly-crazed yet definitely original style of moviemaking, a movie that still holds our attention from start to finish–despite telling an overly-familiar story that most of us already know and that, really, doesn’t offer much that’s new.
That’s just masterful directing talent, to pull off such a feat. And Luhrmann, despite his faults, and there are a few directing faults with “Elvis,” is to be praised for daring to present another version of the story of early rock and roller Elvis Aaron Presley in 2022—-forty-five years after Elvis’ tragic death; eighty-seven years after Elvis’ birth; sixty-eight years after Elvis’ first recordings at Sun Records in Memphis with fellow early rock and roll pioneers guitarist Scotty Moore, bass player Bill Black and producer Sam Phillips (drummer D.J. Fontana would join in 1955); sixty-six years after Elvis’ first RCA Victor single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released; and fifty years after Elvis’ last major rock and roll hit, the classic “Burning Love,” was released. Luhrmann faced a hotel suite’s worth of challenges in releasing yet another movie about Elvis–but, again, utilizing a huge treasure chest, grab-bag and gold mine of directing, producing, writing, casting, music, staging and cinematography tricks, effects, methods and techniques, this “Elvis” manages to always feel new, invigorating, refreshed and refreshing, alive, interesting, informative even, and, yes, even today, in 2022, definitely relevant, pertinent and important.
Of course, Luhrmann had more than a bit of major help on this impressive project. His stellar cast–led by a career-defining, major-star-making and instantly-one-for-the-ages performance by the young (thirty now) American actor Austin Butler as Elvis and an equally captivating, bizarro (in a good way), repulsive (appropriately) and crazed (in a good way) performance by the always-reliable Tom Hanks as Tom Parker, Presley’s slimy, reprehensible and crooked manager–along with scores of other, equally-talented actors, propel this movie as much as Luhrmann’s crazed, inventive direction.
Butler just shines, delivers, wows, amazes, impresses and stuns as Elvis. Butler simply delivers a spectacular, masterful, award-worthy performance. It’s only June, of course, but here’s an early prediction: Look for Butler to be in major contention for best actor during the awards season for 2022 films. Any nomination and win would be wholly deserved and worthy.
What Butler accomplishes so masterfully in portraying Elvis is just what and how Rami Malek accomplished in portraying Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and what and how Taron Egerton accomplished in portraying Elton John in “Rocketman:”
Besides utilizing layers of great acting, singing, movement and musicianship skills, all three actors continually remembered to portray their biographical subjects as real, live, actual human beings, with all the attendant personality ups and downs, positives and negatives, attributes and faults, and troubles, problems and conflicts that every human being on the planet actually has in their lives. Their performances presented these talented, creative and charismatic people as real people who also had varying real-life obstacles, roadblocks, twists, turns, fights and challenges. These performances wisely and, actually, professionally and respectfully, presented Elvis Presley, Freddie Mercury and Elton John as, in essence, human beings, and not romanticized, rose-colored-glasses-colored, caricatured false versions of these performers.
And that is exactly what Butler achieves so well with his portrayal of Elvis in “Elvis.”
Butler, utilizing his natural, gifted talents as an actor, singer, dancer and musician (Butler does all of the singing and dancing in the movie, and Butler plays the guitar and piano in real life), expertly, masterfully and captivatingly portrays Elvis from Elvis’ earliest days as a young, struggling truck driver and aspiring musician in the early 1950s, all the way through Elvis’ mid- and late-’50s monstrous fame, the 1960s movie fame years, the late-’60s, post-big-fame years, the famous 1968 comeback television special–complete with a very appropriate, masterful, relevant and appreciated of-the-time protest song, and then through the troubled, complex and fractured early- and mid-1970s Las Vegas years. It’s all there, up in the screen, and Butler is always reliably and consistently believable at all stages, even when he’s buried beneath mountains of prosthetics, make-up, sunglasses, capes and jumpsuits during the later Vegas years. Kudos to the make-up, hair, prosthetic and costuming crews for their precise, believable work in presenting Butler so well as the various iterations of Elvis through the decades.
The same accolades need to be given to Tom Hanks for his portrayal of Parker–and for the same respective make-up, prosthetic, hair and costuming crews for transforming Hanks into Parker. Hanks buries himself into the role, figuratively and literally. At times–and this is a good thing, of course–viewers will indeed forget that they’re actually watching Tom Hanks, because Hanks, portraying his various iterations of Parker through the decades, looks absolutely nothing like Tom Hanks.
Hanks also dares to lose himself in the role of one of the more absolutely despicable, unlikeable, revolting, hateful, grotesque, slimy, conniving and flat-out horrific characters he’s ever played–Tom Parker. Parker–he was not a real colonel on any level, in any way, and Parker wasn’t even his legal real name for a long time–was, simply, what could accurately be described as a shyster. Other words that could, and have been, used to describe Parker are con man, scammer, unscrupulous, dishonest, unfair, controlling and manipulative. Parker was also one of those despicable showbiz types who feigned to be taking care of, and looking out for, his clients–but years later, it’s determined that they were scamming their clients all along. It’s happened to the very best in show business–including the Beatles, the Stones and hundreds, if not thousands, of other talented musicians and songwriters.
And, Lord almighty, does Hanks have a grand ol’ time playing this shameful, troubled, backwards, scheming shyster. Hanks has the accent–Parker was Dutch and had a Dutch accent; the gait–Parker was overweight and used a cane and often wobbled around in an awkward manner; and the snivelling, sneaky and generally unpleasant mannerisms, traits and personality of Parker down cold. At times–really–Hanks’ Parker brings to mind Danny DeVito’s equally corrupt Penguin from Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns.” Hanks’ portrayal is all together fascinating, strangely captivating, hilarious to watch, downright unpleasant to watch, gross, grotesque and, yes, still, wildly, crazily, psychotically entertaining. Hanks’ performance in “Elvis” is assuredly the most un-Hanksian performance of his career.
Backing up Butler and Hanks in equally excellent performances is a long list of talented actors, all bringing their very best to this movie.
They all shine, and they all deliver, even if they appear briefly or, in Luhrmann’s at-times fevered pacing and timing, too briefly, in the movie: Olivia DeJonge as the long-suffering but still devoted and caring Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ wife; Helen Thomson as Gladys Presley, Elvis’ tragic, doomed, but caring mother; Richard Roxburgh as Vernon Presley, Elvis’ equally-caring but conflicted father; Luke Bracey as Elvis’ more grounded talent manager Jerry Schilling; David Wenham as Hank Snow; Kelvin Harrison, Jr., As B.B. King; Xavier Samuel as Scotty Moore; Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jimmie Rodgers Snow; Josh MConville as Sam Phillips; Yola Quartey as Sister Rosetta Tharpe; Alton Mason as Little Richard; Adam Dunn as Bill Black; Terepai Richmond as D.J. Fontana; Cle Morgan as Mahalia Jackson; and Shonka Dukureh ad Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.
This isn’t just a list of actors and characters–these are the main players in the real-life story of Elvis Presley, and it’s important to note that “Elvis” does include these people and that the actors playing these relevant people do a great job with their roles. Just like anyone in any field and job, in show business and not in show business, there are always many lead and supporting players in a person’s life, and Elvis had many people in his support network. For Luhrmann to include many of these folks is impressive, and it’s a testament to the amount of research, time and effort that Luhrmann and his co-writers undertook to tell as much of Elvis’ story as they could in one movie.
The writers are to be praised for a screenplay that, again, takes a very well-known and well-worn tale and makes that tale still fresh and interesting. The dialogue is nearly-always straightforward and down-to-earth, and the story is jam-packed and relentness–and a good argument could be made that the story is too jam-packed and too relentless. The point is valid–at times, the story and the movie can feel like Luhrmann and his cast and crew are taking on just too much.
However, Luhrmann, like his main subject, Elvis, in his career, obviously wanted to do it all here, so Luhrmann and his writers just went for it, did it, and put it all out there. That approach could have resulted in some meandering, jumbled mess, but, again, Luhrmann’s bag of tricks win out in the end.
Among those tricks is a collective set of production design, art direction, set design, hair, make-up, costuming, scenic and props work and crew work that smoothly and professionally excels in believably and, at times, quite impressively, evoking and presenting a bevy of varied period-specific and geographic-specific locations, settings, places, clothing, cars, props, cultural aspects and people. The movie, as noted, takes the viewer from the early 1950s to the mid 1970s, from the country to the big city, from housing projects to mansions and swanky hotels and casinos, and each period and place is expertly detailed in the most minute ways.
Luhrmann and his production crew present these varied settings and times in their own colorful, individual styles and atmospheres: There’s the vibrant, crowded, smoky, seductive underground and above-ground music clubs in 1950s Memphis; the recording studios, business offices and small nightclubs of the burgeoning rock scene in the 1950s; the hokey, plastic stages of gaudy 1960s television variety shows; the similar, hokey, campy soundstages of 1960s assembly-line back-lot movie studios; the incredibly tacky, seedy, campy and grotesque Vegas casinos, performance halls and hotels; the concurrent down-home warmth and glitzy glamour of the Graceland mansion; and, most poignant of all, the dusty, dirty, bare-bones, bucolic poor section of town where Elvis was raised. It’s all there, well-designed and well-crafted, in “Elvis.”
Now, about that Baz Luhrmann direction.
Even though, as noted, in the end, in summarization, it’s really Luhrmann’s direction that saves this movie from being promptly clumped and dumped in as cliched with all of the hundreds of other Elvis Presley stories in film, television, documentaries, news specials, radio shows, books, newspaper articles, magazine articles, museum displays and everything else, it’s also Luhrmann’s direction, at the same time, that presents the main negative criticism of “Elvis.”
Luhrmann directs “Elvis” in a madcap, frenzied, frenetically paced, timed, shot and edited manner that, at times, needed to simply stop, catch its breath, slow down and just reflect and proceed in a more subtle manner. Luhrmann almost seems like he’s afraid to slow down for even a minute or a few minutes, lest he lose his audience for just a moment. But even the most frenzied and frenetic movies need to slow down and breath for a few moments. Luhrmann needed a few more of those slowed-down moments in “Elvis.” And he’s crammed so much music into the movie–yes, yes, it’s a movie about a musician, but there’s some newer songs that could easily have been cut, and they’re not that good, and there’s no reason for their inclusion. And there’s opportunities for some real dramatic scenes that definitely could have been more powerful and effective if they were paced, timed, blocked and filmed in a slower, more subtle manner.
And the movie needed at least one or two songs that were presented in a more straightforward manner, without all of the attendant swirling camera work and over-editing. Of course, there’s scores of beautiful, classic rock and pop songs that Elvis recorded, and the movie cries out for a chance to just let Austin Butler simply perform a complete song by just letting the song, the music, the performance deliver the power and take center stage–and let the cameras, lighting and editing take a mark ten feet back in the shadows.
Nevertheless, fortunately, crazily, and somehow successfully, Luhrmann and his talented cast and crew creatively overcome these shortcomings with “Elvis.”
And, just like Elvis Presley did many times when his back was against the backdrop, when the fans said he was through, when some said the times had passed him by, when the naysayers said he was all washed up, Elvis, adhering to several of the many messages, morals and themes that are presented in the film, stayed true to himself, he listened to his heart, he stood up against those who tried to take advantage of him, he fought back against the hangers-on and the greedy con-men, he trusted his intuition, he trusted his muse, and one more time, he stayed true to himself—and he put on those clothes, he turned on the charm and charisma and style and presence, and he stepped out on that stage, he grabbed his guitar and the mike, and he delivered all that he could give for each new show, until, finally, there wasn’t anything left to give. Elvis understood that no matter the circumstances, the show must go on.
A heartening aspect of “Elvis,” the new movie, is that three generations of Elvis’ family have publicly praised the movie. Priscilla Presley, 77, Elvis’ widow; Lisa Marie Presley, 54, Elvis’ and Priscilla’s daughter; and Riley Keough, 33, the daughter of Lisa Marie and musician Danny Keough and Elvis’ and Priscilla’s granddaughter, have all praised “Elvis.” And, thus, the thought and question remains: Would Elvis himself like “Elvis” the movie?
Remember that Elvis that was just discussed, two paragraphs back, the one who practiced the many lessons and morality lessons presented in the movie, the ever-vigilant performer who lived for the spotlight and who knew that the show must go on? It’s most likely that that Elvis would approve of Luhrmann’s combination movie, road show, floor show, Vegas show and good ol’ fashioned travelling country tent musical revival.
It’s possible to picture Elvis in the darkened aisles of the movie theater, his spectral presence smiling and enjoying Luhrmann’s, Butler’s, Hanks’ and everyone else’s work on “Elvis,” fully appreciating and respecting the pure enjoyable spectacle of the film.
And it’s possible to picture that after Elvis has left the building, he slowly turns back to the movie theater, smiles, and says, in appreciation, one more time, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”