The legacy of Elvis Presley remains one of many complications. The “King of Rock” not only owns thousands of records for the music industry. He undeniably helped to shape the world of Rock music. At the same time, his legacy as a performer who borrowed and stole from black performers is not something to overlook. Australian director Baz Luhrman turned his camera on the famed star, bringing his maximalist filmmaking techniques to the ultimate showman. Thanks to Austin Butler’s star-making turn, Elvis earns its place as one of the definitive takes on the musician. Yet there are plenty of issues that undermine this success.
Told from the point of view of his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the legend of Elvis Presley comes into focus. In rural Mississippi, a young Elvis (Butler) gains a following amongst a group of traveling musicians. Parker represents one of these artists and quickly realizes Presley’s draw as a performer. Soon, Parker and Presley begin to change show business forever. Presley becomes a phenomenon. Parker capitalizes on that phenomenon in every way financially possible. However, the two could only climb so high before an inevitable fall.
The two key players in the success of Elvis are undeniably Luhrman and Butler. Rarely has Luhrman’s visual aesthetic been so perfectly matched to his material. While The Great Gatsby and Romeo + Juliet shine, Presley’s larger-than-life persona could only be captured by grandiose storytelling. Luhrman infuses the film with beautiful color schemes, fast editing sequences, and montage after montage. Luhrman makes every aspect of Presley’s life feel as wild as the legends.
Butler brings this legendary status to life. The actor embodies the physicality of Elvis in ways that surpass imitation. The energy, the shine, the charisma, and the mannerisms are all on display. Even a wink and smile from Butler feel plucked off of a lunchbox. While other performers, including Taron Egerton and Raimi Malek, have recreated their iconoclast counterparts, Butler seems to live in the role. This movie would fail without this performance, perfectly keyed into Elvis and Luhrman’s style.
While Luhrman lets his craft team run wild and Butler brings the performance, the rest of Elvis feels like it’s on roller skates. Hanks delivers the worst performance of his career. His accent, makeup, and even how he looks at Butler all seem cartoonish. Even the timing of his delivery feels wrong. While there’s plenty of Parker in the performance, Hanks goes so big that it upsets the balance of the film. Luhrman may have asked for this, but Hanks remains one of the greatest American actors. If his instincts were on point, he would have been able to scale back on the absurdity.
Additionally, Elvis attempts to frame the singer as a Civil Rights activist. This version of Presley showcases a performer embedded into Memphis’ black community. There’s no doubt that he interacted with many of the artists referenced in the film. However, to have them willingly throw themselves at him to touch his celebrity is another thing entirely. Even Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s version of B.B. King seems willing to let Elvis run away with his songs. When Eminem has more self-awareness than arguably Presley’s definitive biopic, there’s a real problem with the story.
Finally, the cast outside of Butler fails to live up to his turn. Harrison, Dacre Montgomery, and Alton Mason pop off the screen. This problem feels like an issue that stems from Luhrman. The four-person screenplay (Luhrman, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) does little to make the other characters anything beyond caricature. A different direction for the screenplay may have allowed for more nuanced conversations regarding Elvis and the black community.
Elvis Presley remains one of the most boisterous and kinetic performers in American history. Yet crafting a biopic that does little to address the complexities of his career feels irresponsible. Luhrman may not be American, but the star’s legacy has long been written. Pretty visuals and an outstanding performance from Butler do not save the film. Struggles with the screenplay, the bad performance from Hanks, and ignorance about Presley’s relationship with black music undermine the more substantial discourse of Elvis. While many will enjoy Elvis, Luhrman falls short of true excellence.