Combustible Celluloid
With: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey, Dacre Montgomery, Leon Ford, Gary Clark Jr., Yola, Natasha Bassett, Xavier Samuel, Adam Dunn, Alton Mason, Shonka Dukureh, David Gannon, Shannon Sanders, Charles Grounds, Josh McConville, Kate Mulvany, Gareth Davies, Chaydon Jay
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking
Running Time: 159
Date: 06/24/2022

Elvis (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Good Rockin' Tonight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's not easy to make a biopic about Elvis Aaron Presley. He was one of the most recognizable humans of the twentieth century, possessing a star quality that had been previously unknown. So many people alive are still fans, many of them obsessive fans. His short life, lasting only 42 years, with 23 of those years spent in the limelight, had many chapters. Even with three hours to work with, as John Carpenter had with his TV movie Elvis (1979), there's simply not enough time to cover it all. Director Baz Luhrmann requires two hours and 39 minutes to tell his version of the story in the new Elvis, and it's an admirable attempt. Using his signature flash and high style, Luhrmann focuses on a few angles that make the King feel fresh again, so much so that even newcomers may be awakened to his music.

The film takes place from the point of view of Elvis's notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, in grotesque makeup and a thick accent, but giving one of his all-out best performances). Many fans accuse Parker of running Elvis's career into the ground, and possibly even indirectly causing his death. This Parker slyly narrates and — shifty showman that he is — tries to sweep the blame aside, trying to make himself look like a hero, and the man responsible for Elvis's career, a kindred spirit and an essential partner. Whether he succeeds or not is up for debate, and the ambiguity therein is the film's greatest strength.

Austin Butler — who played "Tex" in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — plays Elvis, bringing the danger and the sex back to his early performances. Any story of Elvis cannot underemphasize what a threat he was to the conservative establishment. They were flat-out afraid. He reached audiences in a primal way that they could not grasp, and could never hope to replicate. Luhrmann shows Elvis's early, electric performances, and captures the endorphin rush with his camera movements and cutting.

Elvis moves smoothly through the star's career: signing with RCA, going into the Army, going to Hollywood (hoping to be a great actor), the "comeback" TV special, the residency in Las Vegas, and the end. Parker slips in and out of the story thanks to Luhrmann's fluid transitions, also employing non-diegetic music, such as Elvis mixed with hip-hop, to shake things up. The Hollywood years are mercifully covered in a short, effective montage. The movie also emphasizes Black faces, and acknowledges Elvis's love, and sheer enthusiasm, for the blues and gospel music he heard in churches and on Beale Street in Memphis.

As it goes on, Butler can't seem to keep up with Elvis's rapid aging and decline, and especially his weight gain; he remains thin throughout the movie. More and more emphasis is placed on his being literally trapped by Parker. He dreams of doing an international tour, which Parker keeps shooting down (for a secret reason of his own). Every time he's about to leave, Parker sabotages him. (It made me think of how George Bailey never got to leave town in It's a Wonderful Life.) It begins to feel a bit exhausting, and we realize that, even though this story is a tête-à-tête between Elvis and Parker, all of the supporting characters (Priscilla, Elvis's mama, Scotty & Bill, Sam Phillips, etc.) disappear into the glitter.

But Luhrmann is wise enough to end his film with a masterstroke. He simply shows us the last known clip of the real Elvis performing for an audience. The King cannot stand. He's overweight, bloated, and sick-looking. He's sweating like crazy. He should have been in a hospital. But he sits at a piano, plunks out a rendition of "Unchained Melody" and absolutely kills it. His voice rings out clear and true. It's the best indication of what made Elvis great, not only his God-given talent, but also his sheer love for all of it. That's what Elvis gets right.

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