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Austin Butler in Elvis.
Austin Butler in Elvis.
Photo: Warner Bros




Now showing in cinemas


4/5 Stars


The story of Elvis Presley is told through the eyes of his manager, promoter, and greatest nemesis, Col. Tom Parker. We follow Elvis from his early days as a white teenager growing up in a black neighbourhood surrounded by rhythm and blues music through his emergence as the "King of Rock and Roll" through his untimely death in 1977 after years of personal neglect, loneliness, depression and growing pill addiction.


Elvis Presley has, almost since the get-go, been a figure of mythological proportions.

The self-styled King of Rock and Roll did, for a short time, live up to his title as he introduced the world to a thrilling new sound, one that would change the face of popular music forever. Whether or not he actually invented rock and roll is almost irrelevant. The fact that he was the first white guy to play that mercurial mix of country, rhythm and blues, and gospel that would become known as rock and roll ensured that the genre would have legs with a wide audience.

Folks like Little Richard and Chuck Berry may or may not have gotten there first, but in the American South in the 1950s, their music were not given the wider exposure nor credit it deserved. It's easy to overlook his enormous importance today, though, because between his not writing his own music or really having been responsible for much of the instrumental backing on his records (he played guitar on stage, but it was pretty rudimentary), he lost a lot of cache with music fans over the years. Also, over time, the question of "cultural appropriation" (or, as I like to call it, "culture") has also plagued Elvis' reputation as he is now seen by many as just another white dude getting rich on black music.

Such charges rather miss the point, of course, but they're further fuelled by the unfortunate truth that aside from a relatively short-lived comeback in the late '60s and early '70s, Elvis allowed himself to become a frankly quite embarrassing caricature of himself. Between starring in a series of increasingly dreadful Hollywood movies, trading his rock and roll cool for sentimental schlock, and ending his all-too-short life as a burned-out, pilled-up Vegas lounge act, who died of a heart attack on the toilet at the age of forty-two, it's amazing that he's remembered fondly at all these days.

ALSO READ: OPINION | Was there anything real about Elvis Presley?

Elvis, Baz Luhrmann's epic, wildly entertaining and moving (if somewhat shallow and exhausting) biopic extravaganza, is hardly the first film about Elvis – very, very, very far from it – but it is a genuine triumph at capturing Elvis as both a genuine sensation and a truly tragic figure. To do this, Luhrmann and his three co-writers (Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) have turned their attention to the man most responsible for both pushing Elvis into the stratosphere of fame and fortune and completely and utterly destroying him: Colonel Tom Parker, a carnival huckster who was never a colonel, never a Tom, and never even a Parker but an opportunistic, illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk.

The film's title is really the only succinct thing about what may well be the most Baz Luhrmanny Baz Luhrmann film to date – even Moulin Rouge has nothing on this – but the film might really have been called Elvis & the Colonel or something like that. Elvis is clearly the star of the film, but it's told, literally narrated, by Tom Hanks' Tom Parker, and it is their relationship that is most central to the film's narrative.

Now, what this means is that a lot of Elvis' story and its supporting characters are only given a cursory glance – most criminally, Elvis' original band, Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on upright bass and D.J. Fontana on drums, aren't even named despite being a crucial component to his breakthrough sound – and the film never quite explores his musical legacy properly, even if its portrayals of his performances are truly sublime. Pleasingly, though, Luhrmann does draw a clear line from black rhythm and blues to what Elvis was doing – culminating in one of my favourite sequences in the film that features a performance of Elvis' breakthrough single, That's All Right Mama, that splices together the older, big-band Elvis with his younger rock-and-roller self and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, the song's originator, played here by Gary Clark Jr, one of today's most significant rhythm and blues artists.

It's this sort of virtuoso editing (the film's editors, Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa, are the film's secret VIPs) and flashy visual flair that is Luhrmann's stock in trade, and it gives the film a sense of movement and bristling energy that most biopics could only dream of having. The first act of the film (taking us up to his time in the military), in particular, is a breathless candy rush that is brilliant at capturing what it must have felt like to be Elvis in the late '50s while also throwing in extensive flashbacks to his Elvis' childhood, plenty of family drama and a kaleidoscopic view of Elvis' impact on the world around him, both positive and controversial. It's all rather overwhelming at times, and it's hard not to wish that it would take the occasional breath to let us savour what's going on, but there's a gaudy relish to its portrayal of Elvis' couple of years at the top of the world that feels entirely appropriate.

At the centre of this opening salvo, though, is the moment that Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker – and we, the audience - first see Austin Butler's Elvis perform. Elvis, sporting eye makeup and a pink jumpsuit, meekly takes to the stage before a conservative crowd of country folks, when suddenly, with a mere shake of the hips, he transforms into this being of raw power and sexuality that shocks the parents and sends the girls into fits of near-literal orgasmic delight.

It takes all of a second and a protracted "wweeeeel..." and that's that: the King of Rock and Roll stands before us. The astonishing Austin Butler doesn't do some cheap Elvis imitation – anyone can do that – but seems to be possessed by the spirit of Elvis Presley himself, even as Luhrmann seems to tell three stories at once in that one, single moment: a humble teenager becomes the superhero he always wanted to be; an audience sees the world in glorious technicolour for the first time, and an opportunistic con man sees his ultimate meal ticket coalesce before him.

Whatever else the film gets wrong and right, it's a moment of pure magic that single-handedly justifies the film's entire existence.

What follows is a story of incredible success followed by embarrassing failure that is so typical of many a superstar, but there's something particularly sad about how this sequence recurs endlessly throughout the rest of Elvis' life and career, thanks to the machinations of one Col. Tom Parker. Hanks is clearly relishing the rare opportunity to play the villain, and his Tom Parker is a truly vile creature with just the right mix of grotesque charm, sly intelligence and pathetic, woe-is-me pitifulness to pull the wool over the eyes of a naive country boy named Elvis Aaron Presley – and almost, but not quite, garners some sympathy from the audience.

We immediately hate this man, but he only becomes increasingly risible as he pulls Elvis into a perpetuating spiral of self-destruction from which there is no escape. The pattern is always the same and reaches its fatal conclusion in the film's final act as Elvis gets trapped in Vegas, and the film's spiky, manic energy is replaced with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, despair and grim inevitability.

Parker convinces Elvis that he has his best interests at heart by allowing him to do his thing on his own terms, but when outside forces (be it censors or Vegas mob bosses) put pressure on Parker, he immediately folds and steers Elvis towards abandoning his authenticity with the enticement of untold fame and riches until Elvis finally rebels, and the whole thing starts again – until that is, Elvis, estranged from his wife, Priscilla (an excellent Olivia DeJonge) and daughter, Lisa Marie; depressed and with a growing addiction, can no longer rebel and, imprisoned by his own manager as a glorified freak in the grim circus that is Las Vegas, wastes away until his ignoble death on the toilet at the tender age of 42.

Like I say, Elvis is a tragic figure, and for all of its bawdy excesses, breakneck (and sometimes wonky) pace, and exuberant entertainment, the film that bears his name is, at the end, a tragedy too. Like Elvis, it's also wildly inconsistent, occasionally maddening, and sometimes wildly overproduced, but also shows more than enough greatness that it's hard not to get swept up in it. And, if nothing else, it firmly establishes its own Elvis, Austin Butler, as a major, fully-formed star.


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