Every cradle-to-grave biopic needs an overarching theme. Baz Luhrmann’s film about American singing legend Elvis Presley finds it on the fairground where Presley’s manger Colonel Tom Parker has honed his skills as an impresario.
Transfixed by Presley’s seductive voice and highly sexualised performance style, Parker turns Presley into the equivalent of a carnival’s top-billed attraction. Try as he might, Presley is unable to escape Parker’s clutches – Pinocchio but without the mischief, Elvis suggests.
Presley’s dizzying rise in the 1950s and subsequent steep fall prove to be a match made in heaven for Luhrmann’s typically frenetic and jittery shooting style. Elvis is one breathless montage after another, providing a non-linear and uncritical account of Presley’s early life up until his death in 1977.
Luhrmann’s whistle-stop tour includes Presley’s early influences – including gospel and other Black musical styles – his relationship with his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) and future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), his frequent runs-in with Parker, and the later dependency on drugs that lead to an early death at the age of 42.
There’s a contemporary touch to the fashioning of Presley as an early exemplar of the contemporary protest artist. Presley insists on priapic performances despite moral outrage and continues his friendship with Black musicians (including BB King) in the face of racism. The singer weeps when prominent American leaders are assassinated and converts a televised Christmas event into a platform to voice his liberal politics.
But Presley’s most consistent – and futile – rebellion is against Parker’s control. Presley can’t help but stick with Parker even when the older man bilks his talent for his own needs.
Buoyed by relentless flashiness and a booming soundtrack that includes Presley hits, other songs from the period and contemporary tunes, Elvis lays out a classic musical-style parade of glamour, success and tragedy. A less hectic and more curious narrative might have better explained Parker’s stranglehold over Presley. Frozen as a millennial-era man-child with sparks of defiance against the paternalistic figure who’s writing the cheques, Luhrmann’s Presley comes vividly alive only when he straps on his guitar and grabs a mic.
Although Presley’s rubber-legged antics and suggestive crooning, which send female fans into orgasmic frenzy, has been edited in a way to minimise the singer’s erotic appeal, there’s no denying the impact Presley has on his followers. Austin Butler does a fabulous job of working the crowd, infusing his Presley impersonations with infectious energy. Butler impresses too in the rare quiet moments when Presley wants to get off the merry-go-round but doesn’t quite know how.
Tom Hanks’s immensely creepy, prosthetics-aided performance often takes Elvis back to the freak show carnival. Sporting a wheedling voice, a fixed stare and sagging jowls, Tom Hanks superbly plays the sinister Svengali who finds the perfect Trilby in the brilliant but vulnerable singer-songwriter. While the 159-minute biopic barely goes beyond the well-stacked Wikipedia page on the top-selling artist, Elvis dazzles in its recreation of Presley’s sensational performances and retains an unsettling quality whenever Tom Parker slithers into the screen.