The life and times of Elvis Presley have been dramatised often over the years, from TV biopics to surreal fictional accounts such as 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep. But a big budget biopic of one of the 20th century’s most famous figures has never been attempted until now. Directed by Baz Luhrmann with an eye-catching cast, Elvis is a modern pop opera that fits perfectly in the craze for jukebox musical biopics.
Austin Butler plays the title role in this story of Elvis’ beginnings as a shy young man from Mississippi who is discovered by Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Before long he is winning over crowds with his sets inspired by black artists. As we follow his rise to unimaginable success, we also see the tensions between the two men, as Parker’s lust for the American Dream leads him to exploit his golden goose.
It’s been a rocky few years for Luhrmann – he received a muted response to 2013’s The Great Gatsby and saw his show The Get Down cancelled after just a season. Happily, his new film is a return to form.
He throws us into a delightful, rhinestone fever dream that celebrates what Presley meant to people, rather than simply recounting the chapters of his life. His often glossed-over influences are celebrated here, with black musicians such as BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr) getting their due as both inspirations and allies. Like so many of Luhrmann’s efforts, the first half practically shoots out of a cannon before the pace slows for the final stretch.
If ever an actor was born for a role, it’s Butler. The 30-year-old looks, sounds, and performs like The King reincarnated. Hanks’ Parker is a little outlandish, however, with an accent that is accurate but overperformed and a villainous streak that might be difficult for some to accept given Hanks’ warm public persona. Still, in this otherworldly setting he’s perfectly at home, and the script’s theatrical flourishes suit him as the film’s narrator. His line that he and Elvis are “two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity” sums up everything beautiful and ugly about their journey.
Elvis isn’t an in-depth examination of The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and some might be left frustrated by the modern fairy tale’s avoidance of Presley’s darker side. However, as a celebration of the ultimate cultural icon, Baz Luhrmann has made one of the most entertaining films of the summer.