If you’re going to do a biopic about Elvis Presley, you either go big or go home.
Fortunately, they handed the keys to Baz Luhrmann who only knows how to go big.
Luhrmann wrote and directed “Elvis,” a bejeweled celebration of triumph and tragedy which focuses primarily on the relationship between Elvis and his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker.
Elvis is played by relative newcomer Austin Butler, who at first glance you could argue only got the part for winning an Elvis Presley look-alike contest. But Butler, who impressively does all of his own singing, channels Elvis’ charisma, presence and dance moves. It’s one of the biggest star-making turns in recent memory.
Opposite Butler’s fresh face is stalwart veteran Tom Hanks as Parker. Behind a lot of prosthetics and an odd Dutch accent, Hanks provides the film’s foundation that let’s Butler shine all the brighter.
Hanks brings pathos and sympathy to a character that could easily have been played as a one-dimensional villain who financially abused Elvis as much as he supported him.
“Elvis” is a vibrant film, which is what you would expect from Luhrmann, but what’s most impressive is how he uses the music to take it to the next level. Most musical biopics play the hits like a jukebox, but Luhrmann strips down Elvis’s songs and weaves them like a tapestry throughout the movie.
The influence of African-American music and culture on Elvis is thrust into the forefront as original versions of songs like “That’s Alright Mama” and “Hound Dog” are given prominence over Elvis’ versions.
The standard criticism of Elvis is that he stole Black music and style, and got rich by making it more palpable to white audiences.
This movie argues that while that was indeed the end result, Elvis was merely singing the music he loved and was passionate about, which made him more of a revolutionary than a thief.
Elvis Presley looms over the 20th century as a colossal icon who was so influential that he ironically gets taken for granted. Luhrmann, Butler and Hanks reclaim the King of Rock n’ Roll for the 21st century and impressively give Elvis his due.
“Elvis” is rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking.