Review

Elvis, review: you can’t help falling in love with Baz Luhrmann’s jukebox epic

4/5

Austin Butler makes a seductive Elvis in this bright and splashy biopic, while Tom Hanks is hugely entertaining as his questionable manager

The King: Austin Butler as Elvis Presley Credit: Warner Bros

😎😮😶 When Baz Luhrmann decided in 2013 to follow his adaptation of The Great Gatsby with an Elvis Presley biopic, the flamboyant Australian was either ahead of the curve or a good decade behind it.

😎😮😶 The rock biopic was lying fallow after the mid-noughties Oscar truffling of Walk the Line, Dreamgirls and Ray, and Bohemian Rhapsody’s coming £750 million windfall was barely a rustle in the bushes. As such, it’s no surprise that Elvis, which has been almost a decade in the making, feels on-trend completely by accident.

😎😮😶 Yes, it’s a bright and splashy jukebox epic with an irresistible central performance from Austin Butler, who until now was perhaps best known as the cult enforcer Tex in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But in that signature Luhrmann way, it veers in and out of fashion on a scene-by-scene basis: it’s the most impeccably styled and blaringly gaudy thing you’ll see all year, and all the more fun for it. Even its treatment of Presley’s own songs makes a virtue of pop’s novelty. When the 19-year-old Elvis plays the Louisiana Hayride in 1954, his guitar crunches and yowls like The White Stripes; when he performs Viva Las Vegas during his Hollywood period, it’s mixed like a Britney Spears track.

😎😮😶 Such liberties are bound to irk purists – and Luhrmann knows which numbers he simply can’t touch. Suspicious Minds is both faithful and achingly tragic, with those repeated references to being “caught in a trap” – sung from the Vegas stage to which he’ll be contractually chained for years – wrung out for maximum ironic effect. But the quirkier arrangements serve a purpose, since they allow Luhrmann to create an illusion of newness: a way of emulating how it must have felt for these immortal songs to fall on fresh ears.

😎😮😶 Naturally, the film makes the well-worn observation that Presley’s genius lay in his blending of musical styles from both sides of America’s racial divide, creating a secret formula for the next… well, seven decades and counting. And when a young musician informs Elvis’s future manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) that this hot young talent happens to be white, the old carnival barker’s facial expression becomes greased with greed.

Butler alongside Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker Credit: Warner Bros

😎😮😶 Luhrmann makes a still more illuminating connection in another early scene, in which the young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) peeps through a crack in a blues shack wall to watch a black couple dance raunchily, before scampering over a field to a Pentecostal mission tent, where worshippers quake to a gospel choir’s calls. Sex and religion – those two peculiarly American sources of derangement – are thus fused in his mind, making his own trademark gyrations a fiery hybrid of the venerational and the venereal. No wonder the girls at his concerts look doubly enraptured.

😎😮😶 The script covers Presley’s entire life, with a focus on the growing tensions between Elvis and Parker, the latter of whom narrates the story on his deathbed, while shuffling around in a hospital gown through a deserted Casino of the Mind. Hanks plays Parker armed with an awards-season starter pack of thick accent, rubber nose and jowls, and while his performance is hugely entertaining – Hanks would struggle to be anything else – perhaps it belongs in a more conventional version of this film.

😎😮😶 An inveterate con artist, Parker treats Elvis’s gift as mere grist for an all-encompassing swindle, and Luhrmann contrives a tremendously creepy meeting between the two inside a fairground hall of mirrors: it’s postponed so long in the narrative, you start to wonder if you missed it. It’s not inconceivable that some will consider this pantomime-ish grasping goblin with his ambiguous European-American burr uncomfortably close to anti-Semitic caricature. But it feels unfortunate rather than actively tone-deaf, particularly since there’s no evidence Parker was Jewish. 

😎😮😶 Working without any cosmetic assistance – or any safety net whatsoever, beyond sheer force of talent – is 30-year-old Butler, whose keen instinct for melodrama and burn-the-screen-down charisma give his Elvis a midcentury Method-acting rawness. It’s not a Presley impersonation so much as Presley via James Dean, and the presence of that actor – whose renegade credibility Elvis envies – looms over the film. There is a terrific sequence in which the temporarily washed-up Elvis broods by the rusting Hollywood sign, while the Griffith Observatory – as prominently featured in Dean’s 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause – shimmers on the other side of the valley, like a mirage.

😎😮😶 Even the intense cherry red of Elvis’s trailer interior seems to be channeling Dean’s jacket in that earlier film – a symbol of the spirit Elvis also originally embodied, before it was commodified. Luhrmann’s film is in many respects a brazen crowd-pleasing commodity itself, but it has the same subversive blood bubbling in its veins.


😎😮😶 Cert 12A, 159 min. In cinemas from Friday June 24