Elvis Review: Hail to the New King

Let’s listen to him for the obscene gyrations! Elvis is a tall portrait of the king of rock-and-roll rocking with hips and feet. Fueled by a full-throttle performance from Austin Butler and director Baz Luhrmann’s assured vision, Elvis is an amplified biopic. Audiences familiar with Luhrmann’s signature panache know what to expect. It’s a period piece dazzled, busted and pimped with meticulously detailed verve and swagger. It’s a Luhrmann film through and through with its kinetic energy and wall-to-wall soundtrack that explodes at 11am. Whether Red Mill! announced itself with an exclamation mark, Lurhmann’s film is all caps, bold, and confidently underlined ELVIS!!!. Elvis is as upset as an Elvis movie could be.

Additionally, Luhrmann’s signature direction offset the relatively conventional storyline with writers Craig Pearce (Red Mill!), Sam Bromell (Netflix Lowering) and Jeremy Donner (The slaughter). The film takes the tried childhood into a serious narrative. It traces Presley’s inspiration from a young age, his battles with drug addiction, and his tragically early demise as predicted. Some scenes could easily be extracted from Ray, Respector heck even A line with Luhrmann’s campy-chic hottie.

However, the film understands that the story of Elvis Presley is, in a way, America’s soul tale. (Documentary by Eugene Jarecki The king explores this metaphor quite brilliantly.) From basking in the power of gospel music as a boy (played by Chaydon Jay in his younger years) to wowing the world under the bright lights of Vegas, Presley’s story is the one of the powers of music to entertain, inspire and transform. The film is also seen in conversation with many singers inspired by Elvis. Lurhmann layers the soundtrack with covers from contemporary artists, keeping Presley’s vocals alive but situating his legacy in the present.

Hanks by Gucci

The biggest surprise about Elvis, however, is that The King is not the star of his own show. Instead, the film frames the story from the perspective of Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). An unreliable narrator if ever there was one, Parker, sweaty and rambling, tells the story heartbeats from the grave. Parker insists he was not responsible for Presley’s death, asking how one could make a career he did. He calls himself the “Snowman” in reference to being a cunning entrepreneur (re: quack) and spins Presley’s biography as if he’s practicing his story to recite at the pearly gates of heaven.

However, if the man upstairs has any common sense, he’ll send Parker to fiery hell. Wearing a bizarre accent that evokes Parker’s statelessness, but which only dates back to Gucci House, Hanks simply overwhelms the film. Narratively, there’s a great argument to be made for framing the story from the perspective of someone who felt entitled to 50% of Presley’s success. The film oscillates between a musical insight into Presley’s life and Parker’s Shakespearean asides. Vanity might have worked if Hanks hadn’t been so comically bad. Additionally, the few clips available from Parker indicate a distinct Southern drag on the peddler’s tongue. Hanks’ creative choice is somewhat dubious given that he’s otherwise one of Hollywood’s most trusted leads when it comes to risk aversion. He’s this year’s Jared Leto in a superior makeup job.

A star is born

On the other hand, since Hanks is so spectacularly awful, it makes Butler’s performance doubly remarkable. Butler’s Elvis is a performance for the books. It’s daring to try out one of rock’s most recognizable voices. However, Butler performs his own voice admirably for Presley’s early tunes and sings mixed with the King in later acts. Whether hardcore fans or casual viewers can see the difference doesn’t matter: Butler bets big and wins.

He electrifies with the confidence, charisma and arrogance with which he brings Presley to life. Just as Presley’s early performances inspired his fans to pull off their panties and scream to the heavens, Butler inspires a similar thrill. The actor, who previously starred in Quentin Tarantino Once upon a time in Hollywood… and is already used for the dune suite, really has a magnetic screen presence. To see Butler’s Elvis invigorate crowds in Vegas is to witness the making of a star.

A tour through music history

The energy of the performance makes the film exhausting, yet invigorating. Elvis visit to a significant chapter in the history of rock music. Biography’s free exploration of Presley’s life finds as many narrative cues in Presley’s influences as in his life. For example, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) gets about as much screen time as BB King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). Both actors are impressive, but Luhrmann and company are more interested in melodies than melodrama. The film tours churches, blues clubs and dive bars to shape the progression of Presley’s voice.

In doing so, Elvis considers Presley’s ability to bridge racial divides in America. From the opening scenes, Parker clashes with his white bread headliner (David Wenham) who protests that his co-star seems “too black”. The authorities rush on Elvis as his popularity explodes. Their objections to her sexualized swaying hips carry obvious racial stereotypes as they fear white and black women’s knees will bend, violating segregation laws thwarted by the power of music.

On the other hand, Elvis simplifies the racial dynamics at play in Presley’s music. The film features Big Momma Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) singing her blues track “Hound Dog” with sass and swagger. A transactional element follows and Elvis quickly tops the charts with his hit cover. But the film doesn’t delve into the larger legacy of white artists profiting from black music under the guise of social progress.

Luhrmann signature needle drop

While Luhrmann dodges this facet of Presley’s career — a big step given the importance of “Hound Dog” both in film and in these conversations — he understands that music is cyclical. Although Butler emotionally injects Presley’s vocals into the film, Presley’s music surges through covers by black artists. Musicians like Yola, Lenesha Randolph, CeeLo Green and Jazmine Sullivan salvage Presley’s hits from spirituals or plantations. Where Luhrmann’s soundtracks sometimes seem anachronistic, this one powerfully, often ingeniously, brings historical narrative into conversation with the present. One needle drop after another signals it’s (mostly) the Elvis movie, but the mic doesn’t drop with the king.

Elvis hits theaters on June 24.




About Laurence Johnson

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