Last Friday, we witnessed Baz Luhrmann’s return to the silver screen with his bright and beautiful biopic Elvis starring Austin Butler as the titular King of Rock and Roll. Luhrmann’s trademark ostentatious style of bright colors, shimmering light, and extravagance in every frame lends itself well to the story of one of music’s most energetic performers. Elvis is captured as always moving in his performances, doing his iconic wiggles and jerks on stage, enrapturing the audience. As his career grows, so does the spectacle of his shows. These concerts are where Luhrmann is able to show off, capturing iconic moments from Elvis’ TV special and his Las Vegas performances at the International Hotel with all of the majesty of the original events. He does this by always cutting between Butler’s dynamic Presley, and his adoring crowd, so the viewer sees the effect the performance have. Butler mesmerizes in these shows, capturing the musician’s energy and portraying a deep love for the music he performs and his audiences.
Though the movie has incredible highs in presenting these electrifying concerts and performances, the energy in the performances and direction dips in many character moments. Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker, the shady talent manager who controls Presley’s career, narrates the film. Hanks plays Parker as a somewhat cartoonish man but has moments of distinct subtle emotion that let you see beyond the veil of this conman manager. Butler portrays Elvis as a very genuine and naïve family man, looking to do what’s best for his family and career. Outside of these two, many of the other characters in the film, like Presley’s parents and his wife Priscilla, played by Olivia DeJonge, are all essentially given one real scene each and then fade into one-dimensional characters. At times it feels like the film is running from era to era in Presley’s career to get to the big performances without presenting much depth into the people and surrounding events. It addresses that Elvis takes so much of his music and style from black culture but never comments on it, merely acknowledging the truth. The movie feels like it is running from era to era in Presley’s career to get to the big performances without presenting much depth into the people and surrounding events. It gives enough to keep the audience entertained and provides a basic understanding, but I was left wanting to read some article or watch a history of the man separate from what I had just seen.
While the film is full of all the brilliant colors and extravagant energy we have come to expect from Luhrmann’s films, the narrative substance leaves a bit to be desired. In the end, it leaves the viewer feeling incredibly satisfied in terms of pure spectacle and joy, but the nearly 3-hour film felt relatively shallow when it came to telling the story of Elvis the man.