“While the performances are excellent, and the classic Elvis tunes still rock, some of the directorial decisions and the use of modern music will leave fans All Shook Up. And not in a good way.”
For those of us who were alive when the king of rock and roll passed on still remember where we were when the news broke. I was on holiday in Somerset in the United Kingdom. And the memory of the shock and tears still lingers to this day. To me, the death of Elvis Presley was an event that stands on par with the death of John F. Kennedy. It was felt around the world. A lot of blame has been laid at many doors for the demise of such an icon. Some of it justified, a lot of it most certainly not. But when it was announced that director Baz Luhrmann was bringing the definitive tale of Elvis’ life, I sat up. Could Luhrmann deliver us the greatest movie about the king’s life we have ever seen? Sadly, the answer is no.
Let’s get things straight here. ‘Elvis’ is a terrific film where star Austin Butler performs as the king. Tom Hanks gives an incredible performance as the Colonel. And the supporting cast is excellent in their own right. But while the performances are excellent, and the classic Elvis tunes still rock, some of the directorial decisions and the use of modern music will leave fans All Shook Up. And not in a good way.
RETURN OF THE KING
The film starts with the Colonel dropping to the floor and being rushed to the hospital. This is accompanied by a voiceover from Tom Hanks, speaking the inner thoughts of Tom Parker. This is followed by a scene where we see Elvis collapsing in a hotel rat run. While most of the people surrounding Elvis rush to his aid, the Colonel simply states the only important thing is that Elvis gets onto the stage and performs. He instructs a doctor to inject Elvis with drugs to get him up and moving, ready to perform. Keep this in mind as it will come back into play later on in the film.
We now go back in time and start our journey through the life of Elvis Presley. It is here where we see the Colonel first set eyes on Presley. And immediately, we can tell by the look in his eyes and his facial expressions that Tom Parker can see huge dollar signs in the way the kid from Memphis performs on stage. Through the film, we see the Colonel doing everything to keep a hold of his prized asset. And I do mean everything. From manipulation to downright abuse, the Colonel has his claws embedded firmly in Presley. Like a hawk with a mouse. And at times it makes for some uncomfortable viewing.
A BIG MISTAKE
The film makes a major mistake. Instead of showing us everything about Elvis, from his humble beginnings to his superstardom and his untimely death, it skimps over a lot of the earlier details before hitting its stride with the recreation of the 1968 Comeback Special. And from here on, we get to see the Elvis that most of us knew. This comes at around the hour mark. And it is then that the film really picks up. It seems as if the first hour of the film was created by some creative designer at times before a proper director took over. And it causes a mismatch that could easily have been avoided.
We start with the supporting cast. The ever-dependable Australian actor Richard Roxburgh turns in a reserved but terrific performance as Elvis’ father, Vernon. We see from the start that Vernon wasn’t the saintly presence we all believed. Where his mother Gladys (a great performance by Helen Thompson) was afraid for her son and for what he pushed himself to do for the family, Vernon actively pushed Elvis to keep going. To continue to perform and put heaps of money on the table. By his son doing what he was good at, Vernon sat back and allowed his son to provide. It is a performance that resonates throughout proceedings.
Olivia DeJonge has the unenviable task of playing Priscilla Presley. But again, the young actress shines through in her role. We see everything that Priscilla felt for her husband. From joy and pride at his accomplishments to the depths of despair as Elvis kissed his female fans in front of her. Right through to Elvis’ drug use. Olivia DeJonge lays everything bare in a worthy performance. David Wenham also excels as Hank Snow. Snow, once Tom Parker’s leading performer watches as his Country and Western shows are gradually catered towards the young Elvis instead. Wenham, another Australian actor, is totally believable as the Canadian-American Country music artist.
Other mentions have to go out to Dacre Montgomery as Steve Binder, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jimmie Rogers Snow, and Luke Bracey as Jerry Schilling. All three give terrific performances in their roles. But the biggest praise for the supporting cast must go to Alton Mason in an all-too-brief role as Little Richard. For people like me who remember Little Richard in his heyday, it is a performance that will blow your socks off. The rendition of ‘Tutti Frutti’ is incredible. But Mason has Little Richard’s moves down to a tee. His performance is incredible and is a major highlight of the earlier part of the film. The same has to be said for Kelvin Harrison as B.B King. Although his performance isn’t as good as Mason’s, Harrison embodies the blues legend completely. And brings a humanizing quality to the role.
What can I say about Tom Hanks that hasn’t already been said? Plenty! Hanks’ performance as Colonel Tom Parker is amongst his best performances ever. The Colonel was a master manipulator from day one. Born Andreas Cornelis Van Kuijk in Holland, he illegally emigrated to the United States and changed his name to the one we are most familiar with. He never was a Colonel. Hanks plays up on this. And he does it with style and grace that cannot go unrewarded. Tom Parker is the ultimate villain of the piece. And Hanks plays him as such. But as the worst kind of villain. The one that we trust and believe in. This isn’t some mustache-twirling villain with an evil cackle. This one comes in human form with a smile of friendliness that hides the real person from the world.
Tom Hanks delivers something truly astonishing. He embodies the Colonel fully. And at times, we even feel some sympathy for him. But that is brushed away with his next dubious act to keep control of Presley. Even when Elvis wants to break away, the Colonel holds an ace in reserve. And Hanks makes us fully aware that he is a devious, unscrupulous, and unfeeling bastard from the start. There is one scene in particular that demonstrates the cold, ruthlessness of Parker’s character. And Hanks pulls it off with ease. It is a masterclass from a master actor, one that knows his craft in his sleep.
A film lives and dies solely on the performance of the main actor. Austin Butler is given the daunting and almost impossible task of playing the great Elvis Presley. Many have tried in the past. Except for Kurt Russell, no one has managed to pull it off. Kurt Russell is the ultimate portrayal of Elvis. Not any longer. Austin Butler HAS to be given the Best Actor Oscar at next year’s ceremony. Why? Because the young actor gives the performance of a lifetime as Elvis.
Every move, every piece of speech, every pelvic thrust is like watching the king himself. Butler IS Elvis. It is a performance that will completely blow the audience and more importantly, the Elvis fans away. From the first second, we lay eyes on Butler portraying the young Elvis through to the final, heartbreaking finale, we are totally engrossed in a performance that will never be bettered.
Austin Butler even manages to blow the legendary Tom Hanks off the screen every time he appears. Make no mistake, the film is about Elvis and Tom Parker. But this is Austin’s film hands down. There has NEVER been a performance like it. It is so encompassing, so engrossing, and so heartbreaking that we cannot tear our eyes off him when he is on screen. Butler first gives us a taste of what he can do in the role early on in the film, when the Colonel first sets eyes on Elvis and how he drives the women in the audience wild. It is astonishing.
But my god, when he recreates the legendary 1968 comeback special, everyone is in for a treat we haven’t had since the real event. It gave me goosebumps at every turn. And when he recreates Elvis’ Las Vegas Residency, hold onto the arms of your seat. It is incredible. It has the power to blow the roof off the theater. And it is all down to Butler’s acting performance. It even had me, at times, in tears as Elvis came back to life and performed in front of the audience and myself.
We can believe that Butler is in reality Elvis Presley himself. His performance really is that good, that astonishing, that we want history to change, that Elvis will still be with us. Sadly, that can never be. But Austin Butler makes us believe that the king is still with us. The Presley family has said this is the definitive portrayal of Elvis. And by god, they are right.
Baz Luhrmann brought the world ‘Moulin Rouge’ twenty-one years ago. His style for that film led to critics praising him and the film. However, Luhrmann unwisely brings the same kind of visual style to ‘Elvis.‘ And it just doesn’t work. Yes, the neons he uses in places are inspired. Yes, some of what he uses in the film works well. But for the most part, it doesn’t fit the story, the narrative, and takes us out of the film. And that isn’t a good thing at all.
Thankfully, he uses this style in the first hour of the film before pushing it to one side once we get to the comeback special recreation. And from this point on, Luhrmann’s direction is exemplary. The way he frames the shots, and the way he has the scenes set is truly the mark of a genius director. His direction of Butler and Hanks is incredible. But it is let down by the first hour where he lets his style run riot. And the use of modern artists to contribute to the soundtrack backfires big time.
A BIZARRE MASH-UP?
We are here to see the story of Elvis and the Colonel. We are NOT here to hear some modern-day, drab, depressing recreation of some of Elvis’ classic tracks by different artists. But they are here and they don’t fit. At all. But Lurmann wisely decides to abandon this for the remaining one hour and forty minutes. And then the film explodes into life. Luhrmann faithfully recreates the sets and designs we know so well. And he tells the story in a way we can relate to. The set designs are incredible, and the styling of the events is exemplary. And it almost redeems the first hour of the film. Almost. But it can’t quite pull it back. The first hour is firmly stuck in our minds and it sadly drags the film down from what should be a sure-fire Oscar bet into something that is above average.
At two hours and forty minutes in length, the film is an hour too long. And that is the first hour. Now, if the film was, say, split into two chapters like ‘Dune’ has been, then the film would soar. Chapter one could cover Elvis’ humble beginnings up to the point of the comeback special with a second chapter to cover everything from that point on. The first hour of the film rushes over Elvis’ early career and that is almost unforgivable.
We want to know and see everything about Elvis’ rise to fame, to his fading popularity before he rises higher than ever. The last hour and forty minutes give us that. But rushing over the early days in the way the film does, sours our impression of the film as a whole. And again, the use of modern musical varients of the classic songs sours the taste even further.
But the film redeems itself from the comeback special onwards. And this is where the audience will see the real story. It is here where Tom Hanks’s portrayal of Tom Parker comes to the fore. This is where we will start to hate the Colonel and his abuse and manipulation. It is also here where we discover some unpleasant truths that will astonish us. This is where the film could get itself nominated for next year’s Oscars. It deserves nominations for set design, visuals, costumes, and possibly direction. But it is Butler and Hanks that have to get nominations or there is no justice.
The film on the whole is enjoyable. But sadly it isn’t the definitive version of Elvis’ story. And that is a shame as there is a lot to like here. While it certainly isn’t a Heartbreak Hotel, it also isn’t a full-on Jailhouse Rock. In the end, it is a case of That’s All Right, Mama. and that in itself is the real tragedy.
‘Elvis’ is distributed by Warner Bros. and will release in theaters on June 24th. Book your tickets NOW!
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Carl Roberts is the News Editor of The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force frequently!