By Bradley Lane
Australian writer and director Baz Luhrmann is a maximalist. His previous films are full of over-the-top performances, wild camera movement, anachronistic musical choices, and especially wild editing decisions. Elvis is not an exception to these signature markers of Luhrmann’s style; instead it leans into his over-the-top, near stream of consciousness structure. Despite an excellent performance by Austin Butler as the titular pioneer of rock’n’roll, Elvis is an exhausting film, even if it was closer to a more reasonable runtime, but at nearly three hours Luhrmann goes completely off the rails and delivers a fun but messy final product.
While it might seem counterintuitive, Elvis does not actually follow the man as its main character. Instead the film is framed through the eyes of Elvis’s longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by an unrecognizable Tom Hanks. The story follows Parker as he discovers Elvis Presley as a young man and traces their tumultuous relationship throughout Presley’s entire career. From the early days at Sun Records to his final act in Vegas, Parker was by Elvis’s side the entire time and exploring their relationship might actually be a key in finding a deeper understanding of the man behind the icon of rock history.
The bulk of discussion around Elvis has been the unanimous acclaim for the performance at its center by relative newcomer, Austin Butler. Butler’s creative decisions while portraying Elvis askew one-to-one recreation of his mannerisms and instead focus on creating a similar essence. His movements while dancing and performing are especially helpful at making Butler disappear into the physicality of his role. This translates into his quieter character moments as well, as once we see he can believably portray Presley at his most wild and free, his deeper truth is more believable.
As previously mentioned, the most immediately striking aspect of Elvis is the visual style. Flashbacks animated in a comic book style, rap music melded together with Elvis’ greatest hits, and fast hyper-kinetic montage sequences are just a handful of aspects that make Luhrmann’s film a visual feast. Unfortunately the substance of the film begins to buckle under the massive weight of the runtime at around the halfway point. Pair this with a story that frames Elvis as blameless in his appropriation of Black culture and slowly the spell that Luhrmann casts in the visceral beginning section begins to peter off as the film continues.
Despite its flaws, I think Elvis is worth checking out, especially as it makes its way onto streaming this Friday, Sept. 2 on HBO Max. Being able to pause the film and come back I think would help alleviate some of its pacing issues and make it a more compelling piece of work. – 3 / 5 stars