Gladys Presley (Helen Thomson): “The way you sing is God-given, so there can't be nothin' wrong with it.”
If you weren’t around mid-twentieth century when Elvis Presley dominated pop culture, I can enthusiastically recommend director Baz Luhrmann’s biopic, Elvis, which scintillates with the King’s white and black singing and pulsates with his revolutionary moves. Not only is it accurate history (e.g., the prominent assassinations); it also captures Elvis’s passion, genius, and demons such as drugs, women, and a sleazy manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
Austin Butler is a dynamic Elvis; Butler doesn’t try to imitate the King so much as capture his magnetic personality and surrounding forces like family, bands, and the colonel, all of which endanger his art. Butler can sing and gyrate without impersonating. The ample and sonorous music throughout has a modern techno element joined by pleasant remixing. It’s a drama wrapped in a musical, reminiscent of Luhrmann’s unforgettable Moulin Rouge.
This movie tries valiantly to trace Elvis’s teen influence from blues, country, and pop, but not conclusively enough to end the arguments about those roots. The inclusion of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) help cross the racial divide with enthusiasm and authenticity.
In large part one can see that the lack of Elvis’s education and the reluctance of those forces to curb his appetites lead to his death at 42. Doctors claim a heart attack while rumors assert drugs. Regardless, Luhrmann treats the components with the respect they deserve.
Safe to say Elvis helped engender the diversity and inclusivity movements that flourish today with a natural performance that propelled him into pop-culture lore and teen-girl fandom.
His Mephistopheles, Colonel Parker, as played by the accomplished Hanks, is the only slightly out-of-touch element in this superior musical. Hanks’ fat suit, prosthetics, and makeup too often distract, and I’m not sure if it’s because we know who’s under it all or that Hanks is just overplaying his hand. For sure his inscrutable accent evokes German when in fact Parker was from the Netherlands.
Colin Farrell’s Penguin is moderate by contrast. Anyway, Hanks sounds goofy and distracts like his makeup. Actually, this odd characterization threatens to take over the film, especially since Parker’s narrator is most of it.
Maybe that’s the point—Parker represents the multiple influences on the King, which give Parker a common man appearance when in fact there is nothing common about him.
The King’s clothes, authentic and glamorous, are glittering and clinging enough to make you want to check Amazon for immediate delivery. One caution, few of us have the appeal or physique of Butler, which could be why he got the role in the first place.
The motion picture Elvis is a summer delight of sentiment, history, and rockin’ music worth every minute of its overlong time. It kept old me awake and happy, as if I were sitting at a table in a Vegas nightclub when Elvis returned for the 7th year.
He just doesn’t leave the building of our minds, ever, and thank you, Baz, for making sure of that.
Director: Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge)
Screenplay: Luhrmann, et al.
Cast: Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Austin Butler
Run Time: 2h 39m
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com