“A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” So runs the slogan to Baz Luhrmann’s production company, Bazmark Films. It’s an apt phrase given the Australian director’s latest project, focusing as it does on the man who rose from the backwaters of Tulepo, Mississippi, to take a sledgehammer to the restrained respectability of 1950s America. Indeed, in Elvis, Luhrmann finds his perfect muse; a man with a god-given, audacious talent which infuriates the establishment and transfixes the people.
At a surface level, Elvis is a conventional music biopic. The singer rises out of obscurity to take America by storm, make enemies along the way, and eventually face a litany of demons. But this simple narrative does a disservice to Luhrmann’s breathless storytelling. While the film’s second half is undeniably baggy – replete as it is with emotional weight and the spectre of a tragic downfall – the first is pure electricity, with the director taking unbridled joy in showcasing the singer’s colossal (and controversial) social impact.
The film is framed as a series of recollections by the ailing Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis’ manager and a notorious huckster, who bitterly rejects his prominent role in the King’s demise. Much has already been made of Hanks’ cartoonish performance, yet in many ways it is perfectly played. When pitched up against the sheer star wattage and charisma of Presely, nothing less than a twitching villainy would be swept off the screen without a trace.
Indeed, Elvis would collapse without a believable lead, and fortunately, Austin Butler is sensational. While the film is less concerned with Elvis the man as it is Elvis the legend, in the middle of everything is the real Elvis Aaron Presley, lost in the eye of the storm. Butler balances both with pure charisma, taking Elvis from his wide-eyed and pelvis-thrusting youth through to the mumbling fury and perpetual drowsiness of his 40s. Of all the film’s achievements, it is Butler’s star-making turn which shines brightest.
Butler’s performance is no mean feat given the various roles Elvis played during his lifetime. The King of Rock’n’Roll was a catalyst for social change in the 1950s, before then being buffeted by those same winds of change. As the 1960 and ’70s progress, Elvis is competing with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and a more general sense of detachment from any vestige of the austere 1950s.
As such, his life becomes a fascinating prism through which to observe the maelstrom of social change which blew over America during his lifetime. The deaths of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr and Bobby Kennedy hang heavily over the drama, with Elvis simultaneously becoming a symbol of progressivism and a link to a more evangelical, church-going past. Despite the restlessness which defines the film, Luhrmann’s handling of this change is surprisingly deft, even if he is clearly more comfortable charting Elvis’s intoxicating rise.
Given the film’s initial breakneck speed and monster run-time, there are moments when it undeniably lulls, though it is never in danger of grinding to a halt. Interestingly, towards the end of film, there is an allusion to Elvis’s potential role in 1976’s A Star is Born (a role which would eventually go to Kris Kristofferson). As a reporter wryly notes, the role of a washed-up icon would not have been much of a stretch for the decaying Elvis. Yet Luhrmann’s film feels redolent of Bradley Cooper’s 2018 remake, particularly in the soul-lifting power of its music and impending sense of tragedy.
And much like the ongoing flashback of a young Elvis enraptured by a gospel choir, when Lurhmann’s film is good, it’s exultant. There are of course events which have been sanitised, and aspects of his legacy which remained airbrushed, but the film seems content to take a leaf out of John Ford’s book, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.”