Why is Elvis Presley?
Anyone can scroll through Wikipedia to read the statistics and biographical details. YouTube is a treasure trove of his television and movie appearances. Getting to the how is as easy as a Google search. The why, however, is more complex.
Through the magic of film, biopics offer clarity and focus. With strong direction, writing, and especially acting, a biopic can explain why a famous person matters and why their story resonates. For a man who’s dominated American popular culture for nearly a century, the why is key. With the gift of hindsight and 45 years of social change, does Elvis’ influence hold up? Does he deserve it?
Baz Luhrmann, the creative force behind Elvis, doesn’t have a satisfactory answer. Instead, he turns Elvis Presley’s (Austin Butler) life and career into a full-blown spectacle. We see Elvis through the eyes of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), his long-time manager. Parker latches onto Elvis early on when the humble yet magnetic young man from Memphis joins Hank Snow’s tour. He sees Elvis as a commodity, not an artist. Every time Elvis pushes past what Parker can sell to ’50s middle America, Parker pulls him back. Nothing is off the table for emotional manipulation. Parker insists that his intentions are good, but he zaps Elvis’ vitality until nothing is left.
Elvis is as much about Colonel Tom Parker as it is Elvis Presley. Luhrmann presents Parker as the devil on Elvis’ shoulder, feeding every destructive impulse and directing him towards degradation. Parker was a predator, and Hanks relishes playing the mustache-twirling villain, as unsubtle he is. The crux of the story is that every terrible thing in Elvis’ life was Parker’s fault: his Army enlistment, his mother’s death, his embarrassing Hollywood career, and his overstretched time in Vegas. It’s a compelling case that would get buy-in from Elvis’ fanbase and his living loved ones Priscilla and Lisa Marie.
The problem is that the framing limits space for Elvis as a character. Elvis offers little insight into the flesh-and-blood man, treating him more like a myth. The first half is especially guilty of this, with the camera whipping around Elvis without settling long enough to really know him. Luhrmann doesn’t set a character baseline until Elvis is under Parker’s full control, making it hard to know how much agency Elvis has. Luhrmann doesn’t seem to know either. Elvis is sometimes savvy and ambitious, then overcome and weak. It’s an interesting tension that Luhrmann doesn’t develop enough when it matters.
Luhrmann reserves the energy he should’ve spent developing Elvis’ character to throwing every stylistic and directorial flourish at the wall. The first half of Elvis is an indeterminable mess, hobbled by lightning-fast pacing and a jumble of visual effects that often skews tacky. It’s Moulin Rouge after doing a speedball. At best, Luhrmann’s indulgences are uncomfortable but manageable. At worst, they are a hideous eyesore. Elvis was already a larger-than-life camp figure who didn’t need the extra razzle-dazzle. Luhrmann spackles it on him with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
These directorial choices are grating because they shortchange Elvis. The film speed-walks through the first phase of his career. It skips over iconic milestones (the omission of “Jailhouse Rock” is glaring), which inadvertently minimizes his cultural success and impact. His relationships with Priscilla and Lisa Marie barely factor into the story. Luhrmann addresses Black music’s influence on Elvis and how he succeeded on their backs. However, the film’s structural problems do more harm than good. Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King, and Little Richard are props rather than artists that Elvis actively engaged with and gained inspiration from. It’s unforgivable to see B.B. King reduced to the “black best friend” trope.
Elvis gains much-needed focus on its titular character in the second half, which covers the making of his legendary 1968 comeback special and his Las Vegas residency. Here, Elvis coalesces as a musically astute, socially conscious, and frustrated artist. The insight that was sorely missing before flows freely. We see how Robert Kennedy’s assassination guided Elvis’ “If I Can Dream” performance and how the promise of an international tour revitalized his musicianship. Seeing Elvis sustain such energy without Luhrmann’s stylistic distractions makes Parker’s manipulations devastating. If Elvis only covered this part of his life, with occasional jaunts to his past, it would be a more powerful and coherent film.
Luhrmann’s excesses would make sense if the man playing Elvis were deficient. Austin Butler is not. He is the best part of Elvis, delivering a career-defining portrayal that sits amongst the best biopic performances. He perfectly captures Elvis’ stage charisma, setting something alight inside you with a razor-sharp and dangerous look. (His movements can sometimes be stiff, but achieving Elvis’ fluidity was always a challenge.) When Luhrmann trusts Butler to explore Elvis as a person, Butler presents a man burdened by personal ambition, family obligation, and social relevance. If Rami Malek won an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury, then Butler could do the same for playing Elvis. That he manages to shine through the heaps of gloss is a feat in and of itself.
Austin Butler is reason enough to watch Elvis, at least to witness the arrival of a genuine star. Fans of Elvis will likely be charmed seeing their idol brought to life by such a dynamic young man. However, the film is a disappointing exercise in excess that somehow flattens Elvis’ cultural impact for anyone unfamiliar with him. It fails as both an interrogation and as a hagiography. For Luhrmann, dizzying, disorienting spectacle is the priority. That may be enough for most people, and that’s fair. Not everything has to be a deep, harrowing exploration.
However, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, and Austin Butler, the man who brought him to life so well, deserve better than “enough.”