Baz Luhrmann’s vivacious directing style is his signature. He also takes a story from yesteryear and gives it a smidgin of contemporary music elements. His hyperkinetic visuals serve up the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the larger-than-life format he deserves. However, story wise, the film is as deep as water in a thimble. Elvis is deified and not examined as a person. We don’t find out any information we don’t already know.
Tom Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s shady manager. He’s our entrée into Elvis’s meteoric rise and is the definition of an unreliable narrator. Throughout the film, he tries to make it seem like he has Elvis’s best interests at heart when he doesn’t. He’s not someone whose voice we need in this story. Picking anyone in Elvis’s circle, like one of his stepbrothers, to tell the story would have been more insightful and interesting.
Austin Butler is magnetic as the King, full of brooding swagger. However, the eyeshadow he has on in almost every scene is distracting. Elvis smoldered and oozed masculinity. Despite Butler’s and the makeup person’s best efforts, he remains baby-faced throughout the frenetic drama. He doesn’t emit raw sexiness, even though his voice is gravelly and dulcet. He’s like a boy trying walk in his daddy’s fancy shoes that don’t quite fit.
There’s a modern-day fascination with superheroes. When the Colonel asks Elvis to tell him where he got a certain quote, Elvis says it’s from one of the superheroes in his favorite comic. While Elvis probably liked comics as much as any other teen, Elvis had more interest in church and Jesus as a youngster than he did comics. He loved singing gospel and often performed spirituals at church in Tupelo, Mississippi. Until his last days, he always performed a gospel song or two during his concerts. He didn’t want to be called “the King” because he said Jesus was the only King. We don’t get any glimpse of the Christian side of Elvis in this flick. The African-American juke joint and the church are shown as only yards away in the depiction of Elvis’s musical influences and one could barely tell the difference between the two types of music. Black characters are mere background players in the story. We don’t see Elvis’s friendship with his background singers The Blossoms and The Sweet Inspirations, which included Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy, or his friendship with peers like Jackie Wilson. The world was more than just stage and lights for Elvis. He was a music icon who was constantly evolving, which was influenced by the people who were revolving around him.
The actress Olivia DeJonge who plays Priscilla looks a lot older than fourteen. By today’s standards, people think it’s scandalous that Elvis started dating Priscilla when she was only fourteen, but unfortunately during the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual. Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, and many more dated and/or married underaged girls. The difference in Elvis and Priscilla’s ages conveys Elvis’s need for control. This kind of character flaw is what makes for sustained drama in a story. This film prefers to present Elvis as flawless, which deflates the energy of the film.
Elvis was a cultural supernova, impacting the civil rights movement, politics, fashion, movies, and live performance. He was a complex, flawed man caught in the trappings of stardom. He always acknowledged his love and appreciation for rhythm and blues and gospel music. At the same time, he realized he was more “palatable” to mainstream audiences than his Black peers. That’s a burden to bear if you care about the music you’re performing. The gravitas of these circumstances is never realized in the slick, overly-stylized film.
Austin Butler could receive an Oscar nod for his performance. He puts ineluctable passion in the role, despite having a limited perspective to work with. Elvis isn’t a totally bad film. It just takes the easy route in portraying a complicated soul who was the first rock star.
This Warner Bros. release comes out in theaters on June 24, 2022.