Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) makes the women go wild. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
LOS ANGELES, June 22 (UPI) — Elvis, in theaters Friday, is the Elvis Presley story told as Moulin Rouge. Director Baz Luhrmann uses his most flamboyant techniques to capture the energy of the flamboyant legend.
In 1997, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), on his deathbed, reflects on the career of Presley (Austin Butler). Presumably, Parker is defending himself but the film is not sympathetic towards Presley’s manager.
The trailers for Elvis really hid how avant-garde Luhrmann’s film is. In his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann used cinematography and editing to make Shakespeare and musicals edgy. He does the same for the stale musician biopic here.
Some of the more obvious techniques incorporate Las Vegas marquees, split screens and comic book panels. One sequence about Presley’s post-army career is presented like a cheesy Elvis movie.
It can be subtler, too. Elvis presents a recording studio as a vast cavern, which any recording artist can confirm is neither accurate nor practical. Meetings with Parker are portrayed as sinister board room meetings just by the lighting, the lenses and the angles chosen.
Hanks plays Parker as Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. As hammy as that can be, it makes sense in the extreme nature of this story.
Parker manipulatively includes the whole Presley family in the business so they are just as entangled as the singer himself. Parker sells anti-Elvis memorabilia to show how he can profit even off hate. At one point, a cash register sound punctuates Parker’s thought process, so subtlety is not part of this setlist.
Butler has the moves and the film captures the sexual energy his gyrations provoked. It’s over the top in the film, but the sensuality is honest. Men’s lust for Presley is treated as just as valid as the fawning women, even if the men of the ’50s couldn’t express their interest as overtly as the women did.
The tonal shifts of Luhrmann’s technique also capture how much time has passed. A major historic moment may have just happened 20 minutes ago, but so much has happened cinematically since then that the story feels vast.
Presley’s Steve Allen Show performance, 1968 comeback special and Las Vegas residency may be more well-known highlights of his story. Incorporated into this framework, it becomes clear when Presley needs a comeback, and when he feels burnt out.
If there are problematic aspects of Presley, Elvis is only concerned with the ones involving Parker. Elvis’s courtship of Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) when she was 15 is not questioned, and the inspiration he took from African-American artists is presented positively.
There are plenty of other accounts of those aspects of Presley’s life for those who want to interrogate them. Omitting them is also consistent with the notion that this is Parker’s version, because he absolutely would have buried those questions.
Even in this context, Priscilla could be more involved. She seems like a supportive partner in business and marriage, but she doesn’t get much screen time. It’s still the Elvis movie, not the Priscilla movie.
As many iconic and notorious Presley moments as Elvis includes, it still doesn’t cover everything, even at over two and a half hours. The film touches on his pill addiction and negotiations for A Star Is Born, but there are no peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
That is to say, even the casual Elvis fan can recognize that this is not the definitive Elvis movie. It may be the closest a movie can come to what it felt like to be Elvis Presley, though.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.