Before anything can be said about the film, it must be said that Austin Butler who portrays the man, the myth, the legend, doesn’t just act as Elvis Presley, he reincarnates him.
As Elvis traverses the rags-to-riches tale of the timeless icon, it is narrated through the eyes of Presley’s infamous manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) who exploited him for financial gains. The story begins with a morphine-struck Parker narrating how the youngster from Memphis caught his eye when he was already driving down the road to stardom; a journey he would have made with or without Parker. However Parker insists, he isn’t the villain of the story he is about to tell, rather the one who gave the world Elvis.
The former carnival pitchmen takes us down memory lane while on his deathbed, giving us glimpses into his own dodgy past and his carnival career. There was a commonality in the way he managed both his carnival acts and the artists he represented – he was cruel, abused and exploited them.
For the unversed, a few years after Presley’s death, Parker was exposed for keeping the late musician as his personal money-making machine with no regard for his emotional wellbeing or artistic independence. Parker took away more than his share, after an initial 25 per cent commission, it later became 50 per cent. He was said to have made more off the merchandise, TV appearances, and acting roles, than Presley himself. Some even blame him for exhausting and overworking the showman, even if he had to pump fluids into him to have the show go on– which ultimately contributed in his tragic death.
The film takes its time drawing the outline. Starting with his childhood, it traces Presley’s introduction to African American gospel and blues that greatly influenced his music which he profited from, and how some sought to restrict his expression to appeal to a conservative white America in the 1950s. It covers his experience with his shameless manager, friendship with B.B. King, his inclination to make political statements and his fight against segregation, a bit of the family man he was, significance of Graceland and of course his wildly criticised signature hip shaking moves.
Director Baz Luhrmann’s vision for the film falls short in the execution of pining down all the intricate elements that made-up the King of Rock n Roll. Despite the two hours and 59-minute runtime, Luhrmann glosses over the not-so-pretty parts of Presley’s life, making us wonder if this decision ties to his bold choice to project the story through the unreliable lens of Parker who is desperately trying to sell his bag of altered truths to anyone listening. Thus, Elvis lands in grey area that prevents it from being labelled a biopic.
However, what the film does best is reignite the fire that is Elvis Presley and marry two entirely different eras and reintroduce the legend to audiences who were enamoured of the King and even to those who hadn’t even heard of him until this moment but have them yearning for more. For younger audiences this becomes a moment to understand Presley, a fusion, a movement, a cult. He was way ahead of his time and why he remains so special.
The relatively slow paced first half changes gears in the second half that it feels rudely rushed along in sporadic montages. The film notably sneaks around the specifics of the Elvis-Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) relationship which even at the time, would have been considered inappropriate due to the age difference when they first met. And it completely omits his last relationship with Linda Thompson who was an important part of his last years.
The grandeur of the sets and the vibrant spectacle although accurately simulate the larger-than-life ambience around the King, nothing holds a candle to Butler’s performance in the title character which he almost effortlessly breathes life into. Despite having to impersonate one of the world’s most parodied icons, he graciously gets under the skin of one of the most loved people in the history of music. Butler doesn’t just nail the look, voice and mannerisms, he has him down to the electrifying stage presence with an aura of danger and sensitivity and the Elvis-ness that charged audiences and reeled them towards the stage. What’s even more impressive is that Butler also pulls off pinks suits, mesh shirts, bejewelled jumpsuits, rhinestone capes and an Army uniform with equal elegance.
The vim and vigour periodically fizzes out when Hanks takes up screen space where he shines only as much as an agile decoration piece in comparison to the actor playing the protagonist. Hanks’ Dutch accent seems inconsistent and pokes several holes in his performance layered in prosthetics.
If this was meant to be a concert film, it perhaps does well in time-travelling, taking us back in time and giving us a feel of what it would have felt like to be in the presence of Presley. The closing scenes show real footage of Presley’s last performance along with other footage that were re-enacted with Butler – and the images are uncanny. As an audience, you might run a gamut of emotions just before the credits start to roll, including the urge to applaud to the brilliance of a man that is no more among us, the legacy he left and also the power of music to transcend cultures and time so much, that it blur the lines in between.
It is not wrong to say Elvis is more about the man behind the biggest selling solo artist of all time.This version of history is that of the ‘maker’ and breaker of Elvis Presley – Tom Parker.
You definitely don’t want to miss this if you are an Elvis fan, and if you are not, you still need to catch this in the theatre to know Elvis a little better than you already do. So go watch it at Scope Cinemas: CCC and Liberty because folks, ELVIS HAS ENTERED THE BUILDING!
By Dilshani Palugaswewa