When a film is titled after one of its characters, 99 times out of 100, that movie is almost entirely about that person. (Save for Private Ryan, of course.)
This is even more true when it comes to biopics, especially when the titular character happens to be one of the most iconic musicians of all time, the King of Rock and Roll himself.
But writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s epic, nearly three-hour depiction of Elvis Presley, simply titled Elvis, is only half about the musical legend. There’s a character hiding in the shadows behind the pomp and circumstance that Luhrmann forces into center stage, often pushing Presley to the side for his own redemption and glory.
Much of the rise and fall of Presley is told from the perspective – and often through languishing narration – by his carnival barker-esque manager Colonel Tom Parker to the point where Luhrmann’s overall message about exploitation for profit gets muddled.
It feels unfair to begin a discussion of an Elvis Presley biopic by talking about something other than the man himself because of his irreversible impact on generations of popular culture, music, and American history, but it’s exactly the position Luhrmann wants to take with his film.
Elvis isn’t about Elvis.
At least not entirely.
Oscar winner Tom Hanks turns in his most baffling performance in years as Parker, waffling through a waning, vaguely European accent that feels more like caricature than imitation. Hanks wades frequently into the waters of the conman grifter, then uses his natural charisma to try and charm audiences back in as Parker continues to pull the wool over Presley’s eyes.
It’s a very broad, showy performance that’s audacious and self-congratulatory in a film where audiences are looking for the focus to be elsewhere.
And this isn’t to say that Luhrmann is pushing Hanks to the forefront because the up-and-coming actor playing Presley isn’t worthy of the spotlight. The complete opposite is true.
If Elvis is worthy of consideration for awards in any respect, Austin Butler’s magnetic, almost hypnotic transformation into the man who would become King of Rock and Roll certainly deserves all the praise he will likely get for the next six months.
It isn’t just that Butler sounds like Presley to the point where viewers with their eyes closes couldn’t tell the difference between the real thing and the copy. It’s also not just because expert craftspeople in the makeup and costume departments take a young actor who looks like Presley and perfectly accentuate his look to maximize the effect.
Butler’s physicality, relentless energy, and emotional core transport audiences into everything that is and was Elvis Presley. Concert sequences evolve along with Presley’s musical style because Butler can slowly, then more brazenly contort his body and gyrate to make viewers young and old swoon.
It’s also the way Butler’s able to lift the entire film by connecting with Presley’s heart in such a way that the more tender, emotional moments feel genuine and contrast the bombastic nature of the swirling film around it.
Never one to shy away from audacious cinematography or excessive editing, Luhrmann keeps Elvis at a rigorous pace that has audiences on their toes for much of the run time and it’s only in the final act that the 159-minute feature burdens viewers with the weight of it all. There’s so much going on that often overshadows the brilliant work that Butler is doing in the title role that keeps Luhrmann’s film from being great, or at times even watchable.
But there are other moments, often in concert sequences or the terrific filming of Presley’s 1968 television special meant to be a Christmas ad concert for Singer sewing machines, where Elvis really shines and has Presley’s signature larger than life attitude.
The bloated runtime, excess focus on Parker and the uneven tone of Luhrmann’s extravagance makes Elvis cumbersome to engage with as an audience and this isn’t even to speak of the film’s option not to address Presley’s political and societal implications outside of entertainment.
For ardent Presley fans and those who love Luhrmann’s more avantgarde filmography like Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, Elvis might be worth taking a chance on in theaters. More casual audiences should probably wait until it hits at home rental or streaming services to break the film up into smaller, more manageable chunks.