A fiercely conventional biopic with all the musical analysis of a Spotify playlist, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is, more often than not, an affront to cinema. Hack-handed edits, schlocky performances and manic pacing prevent this ever being a film worth taking particularly seriously. It doesn’t even seem to want such a response. Yet, a skill Luhrmann has always seemed adept at, Elvis is also a wildly entertaining two-hours-and-fifty-minutes of absurd dialogue and choice politics. It brings me little pride to say it’s among the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. Elvis may well have you all shook up, even if its melody is decidedly unchained.
What’s important to know, straight off the bat, is that Elvis Presley is not its main character. That honour (or curse) goes to Colonel Tom Parker, the King’s nihilistic manager, played by the hammiest iteration of Tom Hanks there has ever been. If that doesn’t sound like immense fun, rest assured: it is. Hanks plays the caricature of a man, whose nationality remains a total mystery even if his madness and fraud are not, with twice the absurdity he brought to the Coen Brothers’ underrated Ealing comedy remake The Ladykillers.
Far from an aberration, though, his hilariously erratic performance is just a sign that Hanks got the memo. When he states, early in Elvis, “Some of you may consider me the villain of this here story,” it’s but a preview of what’s to come. The two-time Academy Award winner truly puts in the most batshit performance of his career to date, seemingly in the full knowledge that the real Colonel Parker was somehow more insane than his own version. Hanks’s Parker hums and haws at every one of Elvis’s decisions, regardless the physical cost it leaves on the King. Torture ensues.
Hanks’s unusually generous serving of ham is balanced out by a sincere and overall impressive Austin Butler in the title role. That’s despite the fact Elvis Presley in Elvis, frankly, doesn’t make much sense. A victim of proto-cancel culture and a woke King who proclaimed Black artist Fats Domino the real king of rock ‘n’ roll – but did little else for the community he stole his entire musical identity from – Luhrmann’s Elvis is a tonal, social mess. Butler thrives, nonetheless. His committed, clued-in performance is an unusually grounded turn in a gaudy film which rarely strives for realism. The King’s relationships with his mother Gladys (Helen Thompson), father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), and wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) are crucial in order for Elvis to appear anything like a real movie, and Butler nails all of them. Presley and Parker share bafflingly few scenes together, helping Luhrmann’s spectacle become the maddening mess it is. Yet Butler can hold his head high for shining in a movie which places Colonel Parker at its centre, despite never probing the fact that Parker’s fixation with the Elvis we know and love may have just a little to do with our own burning love for the king.
Elvis’s worst crime may well be that it doesn’t seem to have much love for its subject at all. Rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton are given lip service, almost to counter Elvis as a genre-defying innovator. Anyone who knows a thing about music must accept that he wasn’t, and that his greatest hits were covers. No matter. According to Luhrmann, Presley brought together gospel music and the blues in a way no one else had. Well, no one else white, maybe.
Elvis does fly through its gargantuan runtime with plenty of colour and pazazz. Luhrmann deserves some credit for that, as does Hanks – seriously – for keeping the tone laughably light. And Butler should win plaudits for reminding us that this is, after all, a real movie. Yet despite its watchability and rare moments of charm, Elvis is ultimately as much an insult to the King as a tribute to him.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release Elvis worldwide on June 24.