“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a delirious, caffeinated roller-coaster of a music biopic, taking the essence of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and shaking it up like a jug of Mountain Dew. It isn’t entirely true, nor does it try to be, but for much of its epic 159-minute running time, it’s vastly entertaining.
Like the director’s Moulin Rouge and Great Gatsby, Elvis is all about style and razzle-dazzle. It’s bold, loud and occasionally bad but it captures the kinetic shock of Elvis’ impact on pop culture better than any other biopic of the man has done. It’s about Elvis as legend, really, a fable imagining the life of the boy from Tupelo.
Luhrmann does cast an eye over the scope of Elvis’ brief 42 years on Earth, but in a fragmented, kaleidoscopic fashion. Like his Gatsby, Baz mixes in modern hip-hop and rock sounds to attempt to show a through-line from Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” to Doja Cat and Diplo. We flash back to Elvis’ impoverished boyhood, his love for Black music and his devil’s bargain with Colonel Tom Parker, the man who would guide – and some say crush the creativity out of – his career. We’ve seen Elvis slowly get reclaimed from the land of fat jokes the past decade or two, and Baz takes him seriously.
Elvis, a god-fearing mama’s boy, was also a precursor of punk rock – shaking up the system and terrifying the powers that be with his hip-shaking, lip-curling presence. Austin Butler at first seems a bit too pretty and polished to be Elvis, but he really grows on you, especially when he hits the stage for some utterly dynamic numbers. From his first appearances on the Louisiana Hayride to his comeback special to his final sad, dazed shows in Vegas, Luhrmann delivers astonishingly visceral recreations. There are moments when Butler’s on stage miming the King that I honestly couldn’t tell him and Presley apart.
Tom Hanks’s scenery-chewing Colonel is a love-it or hate-it creation, speaking in a strange whispery, sing-songy carny barker’s tone and draped in a distracting fat suit. And yet, I liked Hanks, because he understands that to play this character you’ve got to go campy and broad, to embrace the Mephistophelean hold that Parker had on Elvis. Whispering promises and lies like an Iago to Elvis’ Othello, in real life Parker was actually a Dutch native who fled to America under a cloud of scandal and reinvented himself as a huckster. (The excellent biography The Colonel by Alanna Nash goes far more into depth about who Parker really was, which the movie only really alludes to.)
If Elvis peaks during the astounding recreations of his musical numbers, it falters a bit during sappy family drama, and despite its length it tends to zip through the life story, dispatching his time in the Army and movie career in about five minutes. Nobody other than Elvis and the Colonel is given much depth in the movie (Priscilla Presley suffers particularly) and for all the gloss the rise-and-fall-and-rise drama of Elvis apes a million other cinematic biographies.
And this is a fable, make no mistake – Elvis painted as a victim and the less savoury parts of his character brushed aside. The movie leans into his appreciation and inspirations from Black music (which he did have, although the movie exaggerates that a little too much) and ignores questioning the questions that raises about authenticity. It acts as if he wasn’t also a huge fan of white country and gospel artists. I don’t think Elvis was a fierce racist as some do, but he was also very much a product of his time, dirt-poor Mississippi.
There’s a lot of fun-house distortion of history here, but I don’t think this film is trying to ape, say, the thoroughness of the definitive Elvis biography by Peter Guralnick. It’s all about the spectacle in the end, and that’s where Elvis truly delivers. I wouldn’t point this movie at anyone who wants a high-fidelity biography of the man, but if you want to imagine the impact he had, the seismic force of those wiggles and moans on stage almost 70 years ago now and why it still matters today, it’s not a bad place to start.