Director: Baz Luhrman
Writers: Baz Luhrman, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner
Starring: Austin Butler and Tom Hanks‘
Review: Music biopics are all the rage right now. After the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, studios are just pumping these suckers out. Everyone who’s anyone is getting one. From Aretha Franklin to Motley Crue getting their time in the spotlight. So, of course, it was time for Elvis to get involved. But, does his biopic live up to the King of Rock’s reputation or is it worse than a peanut butter and banana sandwich? Well, the answer is somewhere in between, as there were parts that I really, really enjoyed and some that left me completely flabbergasted.
Let’s start off with the good, shall we? Austin Butler absolutely smashes it as Elvis Presley. His mannerisms. His looks. His voice. All of it was spot on. So much so that before the credits roll it switches to a real taping of actual Elvis and it took me a second to realize they’d made the switch. He just embodied the role in ways I don’t know that I’ve seen in a biopic, especially recently. And he brought a ton of realism and heartbreak to a character that’s easy to see as larger than life. I’ve heard a lot of these stories before, but I never really made the connection that there was an actual person behind them. Butler made it easy with his excellent performance, which will probably forever change the way I look at one of the most influential people of all-time.
Second, the visuals are fantastic. If you’ve seen any of Luhrman’s work, you know that he’s a very flashy director. And, of course, that style naturally fits Elvis Presley’s life story. I mean… just look at the guy. Glitz and glimmer were kind of his thing. But, this also leads to some really interesting storytelling decisions. In a sea of boring, static biopics, it’s great to see one take so many stylistic risks. For example, instead of just showing us the front page of the newspaper like we’ve seen a thousand times before, Luhrman chose to film what the photograph would’ve been of with the rest of the paper as a frame. It really helps bring the history to life. Plus, it really, really sells the 1950s-1970s Rock and Roll scene with the “you had to be there” feel to it. And don’t even get me started on how pretty it makes Las Vegas look. Overall, it just makes the whole movie feel worth it, instead of just another retelling of the same old “rags to riches to rags” musician story we’ve heard before.
Like I said though, I don’t think I can completely recommend this movie though. For one, Tom Hanks’ character just does not work here. I’m not sure what, exactly feels so off but it’s definitely something. Maybe it’s the accent he put on or the fifteen pounds of prosthetics. Or the fact that we’re simply not used to seeing Hanks play a villainous character like this. But, if I had to pick my least favorite part, it would be making him the narrator of the entire story. Or, at least, how they portrayed that. Instead of just having him voiceover the flashbacks or do the thing where an old version is telling the story from a chair, they have him hallucinating in a nightmarish, overly CGI casino. Mixed with flashes of his face and rapid cuts to Elvis’ childhood. It all just looks/feels very fake and over dramatic. Plus, it’s honestly extremely discomforting and reminds me of the scenes of Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort infiltrating Harry’s mind. And, I definitely feel bad for Tom Hanks. There’s no way any of that could’ve worked and he did his best.
Lastly, this movie has the most intense pacing issues I’ve ever seen. The first half is an absolute blur with the average scene lasting less than five minutes. I was almost afraid to blink in the fear that I’d miss something important. I very often say that it sometimes feels like “based on a true story” movies are just recapping Wikipedia pages and you could get the same experience out of reading those. But, in this case, even the fastest reader wouldn’t be able to skim Presley’s important life events quicker than the first half of this movie. You barely get an opportunity to feel emotion before it’s on to the next thing. I’ve never seen a character’s rise and fall presented so rapidly. Luckily, it does slow down at the end. So, to me, it feels obvious that those final years are the ones Luhrman really wanted to concentrate on. And, it’s a good spot to spend a lot of time, because those years are as fascinating as they are heartbreaking. But, I wonder if it was worth the Sparknotes version of the rest of his life. Either skip to the end where you clearly wanted the focus to be or even out the pacing a bit. Because, as it is, this movie is wildly disorienting.
Overall, I do think the good things in Elvis outweigh the bad. Especially since the movie captures the feel of the rockstar so well. I just wish it’d flowed a little better. As it stands, it feels like Tom Hanks is the main character, briefly recapping us on the early half of Elvis’ life to get to where he’s more important. But, considering he’s not very good and Austin Butler is fantastic, I wish it had been a wee bit more traditional by having us just follow Elvis’ story. Either that or just focus on the latter half where the movie obviously wants to be anyway. Oh well, I applaud them for taking risks. Because it definitely didn’t feel like just another run of the mill biopic, which is definitely great since Elvis was far from run of the mill.
TL;DR: Pacing issues and a rare bad Tom Hanks role keep Elvis from ever being the must-see Austin Butler‘s performance and the unique visuals deserve.
Score: 6.5 (Watchable)