The recent Baz Luhrmann Elvis biopic succeeds more than it fails. First and foremost, Austin Butler is very good, and he will likely get a Best Actor Oscar nomination. His only sin is not being Elvis, but nobody is or was. He does an excellent job of emulating him.
By contrast, Tom Hanks (or Luhrmann) made some choices that end up leaving Hanks as perhaps the weakest part of the movie. Believe it or not. Tom Hanks is a fantastic actor, and, like most people who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I’m a huge fan. But this felt like a bit of a misfire. More on that in a moment.
There are some other minor criticisms. In a movie about Elvis, you certainly don’t need to incorporate modern musical “takes” on his work. But, of course, that’s Luhrmann. Speaking of which, Luhrmann’s flashy, comic-book-esque visual style seems overused early on.
On the other hand, that style is used in part to summarize or abridge details, which makes sense. In watching this film, I realized that this is the first time in a long while that I’ve watched a movie and thought, “This really could have been a good, big-budget streaming series rather than a film.”
Examples of series that should have been condensed into movies are plentiful (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Hawkeye, MacGruber, etc.), but not the reverse. Here, I happily would have watched six one-hour episodes with the same cast.
Nonetheless, the two-and-a-half-hour version is still quite good, if a bit rushed at points. But I need to talk about Hanks a bit. As I said, his portrayal included some odd choices. Most notably, he makes Tom Parker sound like a recent immigrant all the way to the end of his life in the 1990s.
This is particularly curious because the movie plays the revelation that Parker is actually not from West Virginia as shocking. This is a wildly implausible plot point, as no one who had heard him speak as Hanks does for more than a few seconds would have been blindsided by that information, much less anyone close to Parker.
Yet, here, the movie presents Parker’s origins as a devastating and stunning ruse that took decades to suss out. The story makes more sense when you realize that the Parker ditched the Dutch accent years before he even met Elvis. The film version turns the truth into a head-scratching bit of confusion.
In the end, that doesn’t matter much. The big takeaway from Elvis is a simple reminder to the audience of what a singular cultural force Elvis Presley was.
Watching this movie reminded me a bit of the experience I had watching the documentary The Last Dance. Especially over the second half of LeBron James’ career, there has been a perpetual debate over who the best basketball player of all-time is / was. You can look at the accomplishments of players like Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan or Steph Curry or, especially, LeBron James and make the case for those players’ all-time greatness. And, as anyone who has watched more than one episode of any ESPN talking head show over the past decade can tell you, this is a topic that comes up a lot.
I must admit that even I have been susceptible to the relentless succession of contrived “sports debate,” to the point where I had entertained the question many times in recent years.
Ten minutes into The Last Dance, I felt like an idiot for doing so.
“Oh, of course it’s Michael Jordan.”
I felt similarly watching Elvis. In particular, there is one incredibly powerful moment near the very end, where the filmmakers use a combination of real footage and CGI to make Butler’s Elvis appear at one of Presley’s final concerts, as he sings “Unchained Melody.” Butler eventually disappears, and it’s just the real footage of Presley by the end.
What was so impactful about this clip is this: when we see Elvis in this clip, he is literally weeks away from death. He is significantly overweight, even compared to just three or four years earlier. His breathing is labored. And, in a portion of the footage not shown in the film, he stumbles and slurs his words as he introduces the song.
Clearly, this is a man who is not well. In hindsight, we know he’s a man at the end of his life. This is Elvis at his worst.
And, in the movie, the scene follows directly after a scene where Elvis says goodbye to Priscilla (now divorced). In the scene, a very vulnerable Elvis sits alone with Priscilla in the back of a limo and confides to her that, with his 40th birthday fast approaching, he is worried that no one will remember him.
A few moments later, we’re at that concert. The power of the scene comes from the fact that, even at his worst, Elvis is better than 99.999 percent of all humans who have ever tried to be rock stars. The second he begins singing, he is breathtakingly good.
It’s worth seeing this clip if you haven’t. I include it here:
It’s difficult for me to watch this clip without getting emotional. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I can’t watch this clip without crying.
And, so, in the final moments of Elvis, we’re left with the realization that the last thing to leave Elvis was that spectacular, unparalleled combination of vocal talent and star power.
Even in his 40s. Even at the end. Even when he was at his worst. He was a bigger, brighter star than nearly anyone else.
At his best? He wasn’t just a star.
He was the sun.