Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis Presley biopic is set in an endless present in which Presley’s music, a foundational component of early rock and roll, flows out of the blues, country, and gospel music that preceded it—the sounds of people like Arthur “Big Boy Crudup, Hank Snow, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe—and onward into rap and other musical variants that have surfaced in its long wake. So we get Elvis’ early R&B covers, and his pink Cadillac and gaudy Beale Street cat clothes, but we also get Doja Cat and Swae Lee on the soundtrack, and, at the end, a scorching rap by Eminem called “The King and I .” I know that last item sounds like an occasion for nationwide face-palming, but it’s a measure of Luhrman’s creative determination that it isn’t—that it feels right. It feels like rock and roll.
Elvis is propelled by the director’s customary flash-bang energy and is held together by tightly edited biographical montages that manages to fit quite a lot of Presley’s eventful life into a tightly packed two hour and 39-minute runtime. What really carries the picture, though—what boots it along from beginning to end—is the seductive, a-star-is-born lead performance by Austin Butler, who plays Elvis as a honey-voiced kid with a gift for something that nobody can quite put a name to at first, least of all him. Butler isn’t an exact physical match for Presley—who would be? But he has the man’s sleepy eyes and fleshy pout, and he captures the conflicted soul of a straight-arrow mama’s boy with a growing need for powerful drugs, and the numbing isolation of a man who conquered the world but died alone on a bathroom floor in Memphis.
Luhrmann makes interesting cultural connections right away, linking the ecstatic tent-show religious rituals of Presley’s Mississippi boyhood to the secular showbiz excitements toward which he was headed. The director cuts back and forth from a wall-shaking rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” at a rural revival meeting to a shot of bluesman Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) playing his guitar in a club and singing “That’s All Right” —a song he recorded in 1946, and which Presley would cover for his first Sun Records single in 1954.
Luhrmann uses an early Elvis appearance at a Louisiana Hayride radio concert in Shreveport to skillfully foreshadow cultural changes that are soon to come. When Presley walks out onstage in his drapey pink-and-black suit to sing Arthur Gunter’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” the boys and older men in the audience are audibly derisive. But the little girls understand, and their frenzied response prefigures the ululating Beatlemania of a decade later. Luhrmann also makes another connection by zooming his camera in for a close-up on Elvis’s thrusting pelvis and then calling in a howl of screaming electric guitar notes from a rock era even farther in the future.
Luhrmann’s decision to tell Presley’s story largely through the eyes of his notorious manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, yields mixed results. Parker was actually a Dutch-born carny charlatan named Andreas van Kuijk, a career-long immigrant in the US who acted as an illegal drag on Presley’s talent for 20 years. He also made Presley (and himself) very wealthy, first by organizing the singer’s 1955 move from the indie Sun label to big-time RCA Victor (and taking a huge commission on all of his earnings), later by pioneering the concept of the Las Vegas casino-hotel pop-star residency (he had Presley booked into the International Hotel for two month-long stays annually) and, in 1972, the worldwide satellite music tour (which eliminated any need for Parker—who had no passport—to accompany Elvis on overseas excursions).
The Colonel was a sharp and proudly unprincipled businessman, but he wasn’t especially smart about Elvis’s real value. It was he who locked Presley into a seven-year contract to make mostly awful movies for Paramount Pictures in the 1960s—a deal that took the singer away from the music scene and led to such humiliations as having to perform a beach anthem called “Do the Clam” in a 1965 picture called Girl Happy. Parker also nearly wrecked one of Presley’s great career achievements: the 1968 “comeback” TV special that announced his return from Hollywood to live performance. Parker had set this show up at NBC as a standard Christmas special, and he wanted carols and dopey cable-knit sweaters. Elvis had other thoughts, though, and to help him realize them he made a co-conspirator out of director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery). Binder had earlier directed the 1964 TAMI Show (and would later oversee the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special), and he liked to shake things up. The NBC special did exactly that—it was a very big hit, and Parker’s days as the Elvis-whisperer were suddenly numbered. Or were they?
Tom Parker is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The man was a predatory liar in life and of course he remains one here. Tom Hanks gives this character his folksy all—donning a fat suit and prosthetic wattles and adopting an accent perhaps imported from some previously unvisited precinct of Earth 2. There’s a slight neo-vaudeville feeling to his performance that throws it just slightly off. At one point, where the script stretches for poignance, he says something to Elvis—”We are two odd, lonely children reaching for eternity”—that sinks the scene like a rock.
But Tom Hanks at his worst (whatever that might be) couldn’t sink this picture. Elvis easily prevails on the strength of its atmospheric production design, its music (a blend of vintage material, some it rare, with modern add-ons), and its often moving performances, especially by Olivia DeJonge as a sweet young Priscilla Presley and Alton Mason as Little Richard—doing a moonshot rendition of “Tutti Frutti” that would surely earn a fond wink from the man himself. The movie ends with a famous real-life Elvis performance of “Unchained Melody” in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1977, four months before he died. This is Fat Elvis, as John Lennon called him—sweating and gaspy and struggling to make it through the song. When he somehow does, you can imagine people cheering through their tears. It’s a heart-wrecking piece of tape.
I’m generally happy to see a picture decline to pass the three-hour mark, but I’ll tell ya: Luhrmann says he has a four-hour cut of this picture that also includes things like the famous Elvis-meets-Nixon moment , and I want to see that movie.