😎😮😶 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.
😎😮😶 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