Elvis (2022) is a brilliant, bold, and gloriously over-the-top piece of rock and roll history. But, like Elvis, the blazing source material is ultimately mismanaged and outstays its welcome with a flaccid conclusion that almost eclipses its early brilliance.
The nearly three-hour long film is quintessentially Baz Luhrmann- more Moulin Rouge than straight rock biopic à la Bohemian Rhapsody- and takes audiences on a greatest hits tour through the life of Elvis Aaron Presley, whose humble upbringing in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood planted the seeds for his music superstardom.
Presley was renowned for stealing the Black music and culture he encountered while growing up on Memphis’s Beale Street for a mainstream audience in segregation-era America; he was dubbed “a white boy with black moves.”
The sound and style of music that made the young Elvis happy was the sound and style with which he had grown up. However, producers saw nothing but cash signs in each leather-clad hip thrust. And this is where our story becomes chaotic.
Using the performer’s characteristic dance move as a symbol of cultural division and societal upheaval, full montages are devoted to the phenomenon of “Elvis the Pelvis” (a real-life moniker conferred at the time by the journalists). The camera focuses on star Austin Butler’s (playing Elvis) every twitch and twist as he thrusts his groyne towards the throngs of screaming female fans below the stage. It lacks subtlety. But who anticipates nuance from a Baz Luhrmann film? Or, perhaps, an Elvis show?
Elvis unfortunately crosses the line between magnificent and tacky on multiple occasions. In an unprecedented approach, the video is narrated by Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s longtime manager, as he lies dying in a Las Vegas hospital.
portrayed by a legendary gentleman Parker is portrayed as a caricature of evil, undermining the story’s suspense and depth. This is due to Tom Hanks’s impersonation of a Hollywood sleazeball meets unscrupulous carny through layers of prosthetics and a very odd accent.
Despite being based on a real person, the character is as clichéd and one-dimensional as they come, literally rubbing his hands together with joy as he signs away Elvis’ future to the merchandising moguls.
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Fortunately, the same cannot be true with Elvis. Elvis is not quite a full character analysis (the editing is too choppy and fast-paced for real emotional depth). Austin Butler, however, captures the essence and authenticity of Elvis Presley, the man and the performer, without resorting to parody. His Elvis has the typical sideburns, gravelly voice, and quiff. He also has a heart.
The film also avoids late-era “fat Elvis” cliches and is courteous without being excessively reverent towards its subject. There is indeed a scene where Elvis shoots his television. But happily, Luhrmann spares us from fat-suited, giant-sandwich-eating montages, or even a Romeo + Juliet-style bathroom death scene.
Elvis Presley achieved nearly superhuman heights of popularity and affection during the height of his career. Despite this, he still yearned for more. And while the drive to keep going – to sell more, earn more, be more, for his family and for his fans – was his emotional and professional downfall (it’s difficult to grow creatively when you’re imprisoned in a Las Vegas penthouse between shows), it was born out of happiness.
This stunningly stunning, ingeniously made old-school Hollywood fable does not quite know when to end. But in its own imperfect way, it rediscovers Elvis’s delight.
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