Baz Luhram has a movie back on our screens this summer - it’s hard to believe this but in the last 30 years this is only his sixth film as director.
I have found his films quite hit and miss. I loved his debut feature, Strictly Ballroom, I think its still probably the best thing he’s done.
There is some great stuff stuff in Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. However his last two films, Australia and Gatsby, are genuinely terrible. I was wondering did he still have a good film in him. So I was very pleased and surprised to see that Elvis is actually pretty good.
What is a more difficult role to play than Elvis? Maybe God? Of course to some people there is no difference. I admire the actor Austin Butler for even attempting to take on this role and I am seriously impressed that he just about pulls it off. Helped by not having to do his own singing (although it’s never noticeably dubbed ) he gets the mannerisms and movement down perfectly and actually captures some of Elvis’ energy.
The tricky thing in a biopic is to give a performance rather than an impression. He pulls it off, he’s not doing a Vegas Elvis impersonator show, he’s doing a genuinely good acting job. We see Elvis from a teen right up to his death. As morbid as it sounds, it suits Butler that Elvis died so young, he never really has to age up with make up or CGI and they spare him the final few years of bloated Elvis.
It’s not all good though. I’m about to say a sentence I have never said before. Tom Hanks is the weak link in this film. He plays Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ infamous manger and agent who sucked him dry. Hanks is all over the place with his accent and as a narrator I just found him irritating.
Hanks himself has compared the relationship of The Colonel and Elvis as a kind of Hal and Falstaff type relationship. Well I wish they showed us that — they share one great scene together on a Ferris wheel and that was the only part of the film he featured in I thought was any good.
The big mistake of the film is centring the story so much around Parker. Such a strange decision to anchor the plot to him. They were going for a Salieri in Amadeus type villain narrator but it just didn’t work at all. Another weak point in the film is how quickly it flys by key moments in Elvis’ life. I do wonder does Baz think everyone knows everything about Elvis? Maybe 30 years ago most people would have, but I doubt audiences today do.
Graceland is bought in a flash and his stint in the army and Hollywood is barely five minutes. This is a two and a half hour movie I may add, there is no reason to skip over these moments. However, the good parts in this movie are really, really good.
The scenes doing the TV specials in the latter half of the films are genuinely great cinema and captures the energy and charisma of the man at the peak of his powers. Same goes for the opening performance at the Louisiana Hayride with Elvis finding his voice and movement as a young artist while the young women in the audience literally have a sexual awakening watching him perform.
The film also goes to great lengths to credit the black musicians who so heavily influenced Elvis’ career. Its appropriate and I’d love to see a documentary on just his youth. Baz Lurham’s blistering kinetic style from Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet actually works well in this film and I’m really happy to say it’s well worth a watch despite its flaws.