Elvis

by Toby Woollaston

Verdict: A vibrant spectacle to match the legend.

Baz Luhrmann’s brash in-your-face film-making style appears to be the perfect fit for this glittery biopic about Elvis. His is the kind of vibrant kinetic storytelling that made Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby such compelling films to experience. Similarly, Luhrmann has liberally splashed his trademark sensory bombast onto the sequinned canvas of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll with confident ease.

Right from the outset this film is a blast, and Luhrmann (who also wrote the screenplay) seems to make no apologies for his film’s tenuous position on the facts. After all, this version of Elvis is described through the lens of an unreliable narrator (Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks)—which is either a genius move on Luhrmann’s part, paving the way for his outlandish cinematic style, or (as the cynically minded would have), a lazy cop-out. Either way, there is no denying that Luhrmann’s maximalist style is turned up to eleven—in fact, I think by the end of the film the dial had fallen off.

At its centre is relative newcomer, Austin Butler, who plays the titular role. Understandably, the bulk of the film hangs on his performance and thankfully (also relievingly), he nails it. From every hip shake and lip snarl to his deeply accented drawl, Butler captures the Elvis myth like lighting in a bottle. It seems heresy to say in one breath that the actor of the embarrassingly bad Shannara Chronicles outshines the multi-Oscar-winning Tom Hanks. But he does. The less impressive Hanks, as Elvis’s longtime manager who exploited Presley for every penny he could, instead appears for most of the movie to be struggling with the elephantine prosthetics he is buried beneath.

Ultimately though, the real elephant in the theatre remains Luhrmann’s delicate play between fact and myth. Sticklers for the truth might find Luhrmann’s artistic embellishments one hip-gyration too many—certainly, the film offers little insight into the lives of each character. But perhaps that’s the point, do we really get to know a legend? Whether you see Elvis as a superficially re-sequinned jumpsuit of a film, or a wonderfully unbridled love letter to an icon, will depend entirely on your tolerance for myth-making. I’m far from a Presley fan, but Luhrmann’s film left me all shook up, and in love, uh-huh.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.