As expected, the Baz Luhrmann-directed Elvis Presley biopic, conveniently titled “Elvis,” is certainly a movie that you can go out and watch about one of the most iconic acts of all time. After your head stops spinning as if you took the drugs that Presley takes in the film, it becomes clear that “Elvis” is not necessarily a bad film or a bad musical biopic, but it’s all flash and zero substance outside of its lead actor and production design.
Told through the lens of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), “Elvis” chronicles the journey of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). From his heartthrob days and being vilified as “Elvis the Pelvis,” to his sorrowful final years stuck in the hellish hotel in Las Vegas, “Elvis” covers a lot of ground in its two-and-a-half-hour runtime while sprinkling in some of Presley’s greatest hits to keep your foot tapping the whole way.
To its credit, “Elvis” is not a glorified music video like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” nor does it put a fantastic lead performance that embodies its leading man to waste like “Stardust,” but it’s also not as whimsical or honest as “Rocketman.” Austin Butler is a convincing Elvis Presley, no doubt about it. His performance only gets better as the runtime goes on and he’s allowed to transition into the full showman that Presley was.
Every musical biopic needs the shady manager that screws over the talent. It’s clear that Colonel Tom Parker is not a good person, but Tom Hanks does no favors to this and is borderline insufferable in “Elvis.” To make matters worse, Parker is the vehicle driving the film. It’s not the ridiculous accent or the wonky prosthetics, it’s the fact that his performance is so contrived and the complete antithesis of Butler’s (who embodies the person he is playing). Hanks tries, but the “You and I are not so different, after all,” speech that he delivers towards the end will make you laugh out loud, though not as loud as when the film reveals that, get ready for this, Parker is not what he appears. This moment is trying to get a gasp out of the audience, but the shock value is even with that scene in “Here Comes the Boom” where it’s revealed that the principal of the school has been stealing the winnings that Kevin James earned in the film.
I think what makes the character of Parker so frustrating is that while you understand that he’s a manipulative figure in Presley’s life, his way of always keeping Presley wrapped around his finger is nothing more than him saying something like, “Your poor mother wouldn’t want this.” Look, I love my mother, but just how drugged was Presley if he couldn’t see what was happening here? There had to be more to the story than what “Elvis” shows because he looks like a complete tool anytime Parker manipulates him outside of the first few occurrences.
The recency of “Nightmare Alley” may be why this comparison comes to mind, but Parker sure bears a lot of resemblance to Bradley Cooper’s character in the aforementioned film. Parker doesn’t end up becoming the geek by the end — spoiler alert, I guess — but the metaphor of a circus geek is so on-the-nose, and for what? Parker literally trades Presley’s soul for credit at a casino. As Bono said, “Every gambler knows that to lose, is what they’re really there for.” Apparently, Parker didn’t get the memo.
And it likely wasn’t cheap to get Hanks in the film, so it was probably like getting the most mileage out of an expensive tank of gas, but the first 15 minutes are not only unnecessary (who cares about the background of the Colonel?), they’re boring. The trippy slot machine transitions were the only notable aspects of these scenes yet it felt like the only reason they existed is because they had gotten Tom Hanks to sign onto the film.
After four paragraphs on Parker, which will still take less time than watching the opening 15 minutes, let’s transition to the fact that for better or for worse, “Elvis” is a Baz Luhrmann movie. The first hour and a half of the film fly by in an instant and is full throttle while heavily leaning into the idea of Las Vegas with montages full of slot machines and roulette tables. Perhaps “Elvis” earned its 12-minute standing ovation at Cannes, but it certainly doesn’t earn the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Films can be as long or as short as they want so long that it serves the story — “The Godfather” (175 minutes) and “Petite Maman” (72 minutes) are my go-to examples of this — but “Elvis” has a bit of “The Irishman” syndrome and loses its momentum in its final hour by slowing down too much and becoming depressing. After an hour-and-a-half of going 100 mph, the film slows down and begins to actually focus on its titular character. It’s too little, too late by that point and the film just lags to an end like “Love Me Tender.” I guess you could say that this is an accurate representation of Presley’s life; going 100 mph to a lagging end, but no one wants to be beaten over the head with the fact that Presley was indeed stuck in a hellish hotel for his final years. It added nothing to the pathos of the character, in fact, it began minimizing it for me. To be fair, if they had just cut the Colonel’s little intro, this complaint would cease to exist as it would’ve been more bearable.
Going back to the music, many of the song choices worked. As a very, and I mean very casual fan of Presley, I recognized all of the songs used in the film. However, what were those remixes? I have my own theories, but what was Doja Cat doing on this soundtrack? Her song, verse, whatever you want to call it plays over “Hound Dog” during a scene where Presley is walking down Beale Street. It muddled the tone of the scene and added little to nothing. Amidst viewing the film, I remembered the news of Doja Cat being featured in the film, but I was under the impression that they meant she did a song for the credits (which I believe Eminem does). That couldn’t be further from the case and Luhrmann just plops her song in the middle of the movie like a real cat does a poop. And I know that this film is coming from the guy who used Radiohead in his “Romeo + Juliet” film, but when a film is about a specific musical act and a specific time period, it’s weird to hear an artist from 60+ years later pop up randomly.
The production design is the other part of the film that is actually worth noting in a positive light. Luhrmann and his team replicate the 1960s to perfection from the Las Vegas hotels to the Beale Street bars. Even when they are replicating actual events such as Presley’s last performance, it’s done so, so well. Funnily enough, Butler barely ages in the film despite it ranging across Presley’s whole life. Yet, in this last scene, they put him under enough prosthetics that he truly looks like Presley in his final years. It’s heartbreaking to watch but also impressive for the production value.
For those that grew up idolizing (among other things) Elvis Presley, “Elvis” is the definitive biopic for the King of Rock and Roll, so I won’t take away this moment from you. I can’t tell you the little intricacies of his story that Luhrmann either fabricates or exaggerates (check back in when they make a Bono or Paul McCartney biopic), so “Elvis” works fine as is. Butler could get an Oscar nomination for his performance, the film looks good (even if it is a headache), and the music choices will get any casual fan moving to the beat. But it’s far too long and is very much a paint-by-numbers musical biopic that disguises itself as something different with its flashy lights and slot machine transitions.
Warner Bros. will release “Elvis” on June 24.