Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis portrays the king of rock and roll in ways many who lived before his time have never truly comprehended. The young are told Elvis was revolutionary and a rebel when he first broke onto the music scene. And older generations still revel in the glitz and glamor he brought to Vegas, where his presence has become mythical, yet commercialized. But rather than giving us a straightforward retelling of his life, Baz lets Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), take the reins, and narrate this film. We see the Elvis he discovered, created, worked like a dog and kept caged in that glittering Las Vegas hotel. And filled with dizzying visual techniques and unexpected musical mashups, is a damn good show.
In classic Luhrmann fashion, this film follows his typical formula, making this film feel like an emotional roller coaster ride. The opening builds up the tension, we are aware of Elvis’s eventual demise. Then we plunge into an energetic world of rock and roll shows, girls screaming for Elvis dancing in his pink suit. The sudden rise to fame is exciting and intoxicating. But consequences of his rebellion hit. Tragedy strikes when his mother dies just after he is forced into the US army. Then we’re shown the dizzying years of television and movie fame, trying to stay relevant and true to himself as the world quakes from the civil rights movement and all this wears on his little family. As Elvis dreams of a world tour, the Colonel unveils his greatest con of all, keeping Elvis permanently in Las Vegas to perform in the same place, same time over and over again. The final act casts us into despair as we watch poor overworked Elvis succumb to his pill addiction and fading health under the spotlight.
What keeps me coming back to this movie again and again is the first half of the film, depicting a young, skinny Elvis discovering his own style. We are shown flashbacks of him as a little kid in dirty overalls, hanging out with little black boys, sneaking a peak at some raw rhythm and blues and simultaneously surrendering to the ecstasy of a revival tent. As a young man, he enjoys hanging out on Beale Street with BB King. One of my favorite scenes is when they’re watching a young, unknown Little Richard sing Tutti Frutti
One of the best things this film portrays is just how divided the times were around Elvis. On one side, we see young people moved by his music and girls screaming over his dancing. However, Elvis is a product of the segregated south and those who want to keep it that way cannot abide by a young white man gyrating his hips and playing “negro music.” Elvis just wants to be true to himself, not sellout but keep supporting his family. He’s constantly in conflict with himself and what others expect him to do. Especially what the Colonel wants him to do.
Elvis is currently nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film is also nominated for best sound, film editing, production design, makeup and hairstyling, costume design and cinematography. Austin Butler is nominated for Best Lead actor in his amazing performance as Elvis, his first Oscar nomination.
I cannot think of another director better suited to make a biopic about Elvis. Baz Luhrmann brings his spectacular visual style and funky love of music mashups to perfectly create an enjoyable and empathetic ride through Elvis’s life. The impacts, both cultural and personal are clear to the audience, shown in a way that all generations can appreciate them. And who else could use a mix Hound Dog with Doja Cat and pull it off?
“Come on, man. They’re not gonna put you in jail. They might put me in jail for walkin’ across the street, but you a famous white boy. Too many people making too much money off you to put you in jail.”