Film Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis

Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman might have been warm ups for a more compelling tale. Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s much-heralded biopic of The King, Elvis Presley, does not disappoint. This takes a remarkable story of rags-to-riches, excess and personal tragedy and makes the most of its cinematic opportunities.  

By Miles Salter

The film focuses on the relationship between Presley (a handsome Austin Butler in a role that will make him a star) and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played well by Tom Hanks with clever make up that swells him in size) and charts the various aspects of a well known career; the early days, the rising star, the humiliating TV moment where Elvis sings to a dog, the army, his mother’s death, the lousy movies, and the glitzy Las Vegas era.  

Luhrmann chooses to focus on the 1970s, but the early life is engaging, too. Elvis’ twin brother, Jesse, died at birth, a loss that haunted the singer. To its credit, the film does not avoid the dark side of America of the late 1960s, with references to rampant racism, the shootings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as The Rolling Stones’ darkest hour at Altamont.

The conflict comes from the relationship between Parker and Presley. Parker wants a clean cut, all-American hero, a package that can be sold over and over to the mass market. Elvis wants to swing his hips and let rip. It seems pretty tame now, but the film makes the most of Elvis’s sexual power. When Parker observes the way one of the girls responds to young Elvis’ magnetic power, he notes: ‘She was having feelings she wasn’t sure she should have.’  

Luhrmann’s taste for the flashy and over-the-top can be seen in films like Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. It worked in the former, where dozens of men in top hats and tails adored a lovely Nicole Kidman, but it failed in the latter. The director missed the melancholy and sadness at the heart of Fitzgerald’s tale of 1920s hedonism. In Elvis, things are more nuanced.  

The final thirty minutes chart the demise of America’s biggest star, hopelessly addicted to all manner of medicinal drugs. He went from lean and handsome to bloated and incoherent in seven years. Luhrmann draws a tasteful veil over Presley’s sordid death, but we do get some real life footage of Elvis at one of his final gigs, singing really well. He was 42. That he wasn’t looked after better by himself, or the people around him, is beyond tragic. The Memphis Mafia, his gang of male cronies, would live with the guilt of what happened. Nobody put their foot down to change things. ‘The only thing that matters,’ rasps Tom Hanks’ Colonel at one point, as a faltering singer is on his knees, ‘is that that man is on that stage tonight.’ In one of the film’s best scenes, Elvis begins his run at Las Vegas. He performs Suspicious Minds, one of the best songs from his final decade. ‘We’re caught in a trap,’ he sings, as The Colonel negotiates a deal that will keep the singer a virtual prisoner of the casino for years to come. 

Neither Elvis nor The Colonel comes out of this gleaming and spotless. But The Colonel’s use of the singer as a cash cow, is distasteful, to say the least. At one point in the film he presents Elvis with a bill for $8 million dollars. After his death, The Colonel was found to have abused his financial position, and his ties with the Presley estate were severed accordingly.  

Elvis is brash, and exciting. But it also deals in tragedy, too. There’s something epic, almost Shakespearean, about the arc of Presley’s amazing, stunted life, and Luhrmann captures the spectacle of the upwards trajectory, and the fall, with panache.  

Elvis is in cinemas now.  

Miles Salter is a writer and musician based in York.