M, 159 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
The King has been gone a while now but that doesn’t mean people don’t feel a connection and want to bring him back. Just what was it about Elvis Presley that spoke to so many of us, made us feel he was reaching out?
It guarantees a ready-made audience for this intensely immersive cinema experience that is so steeped in Elvis’ life story it barely pauses for breath over 160 minutes of running time. It certainly is a brilliant homage to a spectacularly talented entertainer who rose out of the Depression-era American South. The son of poor white folks who grew up amongst black Americans, combining their music to produce his own unique blend of country, rhythm and blues, and gospel.
A Baz Luhrmann film is by definition high energy, and Elvis was never going to be any exception. It generates exuberance from its jewel-encrusted, opening credits through to the story’s tragic end, every frame shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker filled with lavish production detail. This is an exceptional collaboration from Luhrmann and his partner, the production and costume designer Catherine Martin, the recipient of four Oscars.
While the films have been uniquely spectacular there hasn’t been much to chew on, but this is Luhrmann’s tour de force
Since he began as a filmmaker 30 years ago, it has seemed Baz Luhrmann has never waited for permission to do anything. Such audacity and confidence are admirable, resulting in work that has been uniquely spectacular, but I haven’t really found all that much to chew over. Until this film. Elvis is his tour de force.
Luhrmann has given Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, the role of occasional narrator, the character through whom the Elvis story is told. Like a wily predator, sizing up his prey from a distance, the impresario Parker (an unrecognisable Tom Hanks) becomes aware of the exciting new talent having a big impact in Memphis, Tennessee.
Bringing the story of one of the biggest cultural icons of last century to the screen was a massive, career-defining undertaking for Butler, and surely for his well-established director too. A sense of anticipation builds that is almost palpable, and I’m happy to say that Austin Butler makes a terrific Elvis. He gives a remarkable performance, leaving the doubters behind the moment he steps up in his cheeky quiff, kohl-lined eyes and lolly pink suit. And Butler has the moves, the guitar skills and the voice, while conveying Elvis’ vulnerabilities too.
Playing the part of Parker is a brave turn by nice-guy Hanks, whose performance behind transformative prosthetics is outstanding. At the beginning I couldn’t see the point in having Parker give his side of the story in voiceover, with his ‘I didn’t kill him, I made him’ approach. Then it quickly becomes apparent that the strategy allows for a full reveal of the man, at his manipulative, venal worst, and is all the more potent.
For raw talent, there are still few who can match Elvis Presley
There is, by the way, a doco on streaming services called Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018) that also explores the evolution of Presley’s talent by way of Black American musical genres and the corrosive influence of Parker in similar vein. It’s excellent viewing, and a fine companion piece to this emotionally powerful experience, combining superb performances and thrilling technical skills.
For a reminder of Elvis’ natural talent, we need go no further than the electrifying 68 Comeback Concert that is recreated in Elvis and shown in original footage in The Searcher. It’s an explosive return to his creative roots on both occasions. For raw talent, there are still few to match him.
Luhrmann reminds us of this too, with a clip near the end of Elvis himself. When the King was ailing, the beautiful face distorted by drugs and excess weight, a sad parody of his former self. Though barely able to stand he could still accompany himself on piano as he sang Unchained Melody. He was indeed imprisoned. Heartbreaking.
Since his extravagant and wickedly subversive Strictly Ballroom, we have marvelled at Luhrmann’s mercurial and diverse career, connecting him to so many creative fields including opera, music and fashion, in which he has recently collaborated on the Met Gala event in New York.
It pulls you up to realise that this is Luhrmann’s sixth feature film. Four of these are in the top ten all-time hits at the Australian box office, which is no bad feat in a notoriously capricious market. I do expect that Elvis will eventually join them.