Elvis (2022) – A Tragic Spectacle

Hi! I finally saw Elvis after playing his music around my house for two weeks, and I have a LOT of thoughts. I actually saw Elvis twice in the same weekend, and the emotional onslaught was only slightly minimized the second time. I suppose I’ll put a spoiler warning for this stylized retelling of true events.

I’ve been a fan of the Baz Luhurman films I’ve seen, particularly Romeo and Juliet (1996) and The Great Gatsby (2013). Luhurman uses costumes, music, and characters to create engaging spectacles that end in inevitable tragedy, and Elvis is no different.

Characters

Next year’s Best Actor Oscar is Austin Butler’s to lose, for his portrayal of the titular icon. Butler captures every era of Elvis’ public life, from his early Memphis days to his final “imprisonment” on a Vegas stage. Elvis starts as an endearing country boy and winds up a lonely icon. Under Colonel Tom Parker’s thumb, Elvis explodes, and then shrivels under the weight of stardom, manipulation, and addiction. It’s a true tragedy in the most classic sense, and Butler should clear off some space on his mantle for that statue.

Throughout this rollercoaster of a film, the greatest thing about Elvis was his refusal to be defined by anyone’s expectations. I audibly cheered a number of times in the theater when Elvis “broke the rules” and did what made him happy. Butler gorgeously balances Elvis’ tender side with the “raw and dirty” sex appeal that made him famous. The first half of the movie is a joyous climb to the top, but the joy turns on a dime and Butler can also carry the weight of the King’s rapid decline with heartbreaking and visceral poignancy. Seriously, the last 30 minutes of the movie are emotional hell.

Colonel Tom Parker has only the best intentions for his “wiggling boy”. It’s not like he was financially abusive to his superstar client for over two decades, while committing identity fraud to boot… Luhrmann seems to be taking a similar angle as Gatsby, telling the story through the eyes of a side character. However in this case, Tom Hanks and his terrible accent initially distract us from the budding young icon. I honestly wish they hadn’t cast Tom Hanks in this role, and that they had minimized his character’s narration. Also, the movie only briefly explains Parker’s status as an illegal Dutch immigrant, which irritates me. Historical details that big should either be their own plot point, or be mentioned in the credits.

Although Butler and Hanks run away with this film, the ensemble has a few standouts. Priscila Presley, played by Olivia DeJonge, is more of a prop than a fully developed character, likely because Ms. Presley is still very much alive. This could also be because Butler and DeJonge have ZERO chemistry, except when they depict the couple’s separation. Butler is obviously the perfect Elvis, but I think DeJonge was miscast. More focus is given to Elvis’ mother Gladys, as she worries about her boy’s integrity amid his meteoric rise. Helen Thomson anchors the role with fierce compassion. Elvis’ father Vernon is onscreen but he pretty much just does Parker’s bidding.

Aesthetic

Baz Luhrman likes to make a spectacle. Since the movie spans about 20 years, dizzying montages alternate with drawn-out slow motion shots, and this method beautifully captures the insanity of “pop stardom”. The movie starts in the backwoods of Memphis, so the scenery and everything is very “Southern”. As Elvis’ star rises, we see some of his iconic outfits like the white suit and the black leather jacket.

Butler rocks Elvis’ classic white jumpsuit
This is the leather outfit Elvis wore in his 1968 Comeback Special. Butler is clearly having the time of his life here.

Pacing

This grand epic drama chronicles Elvis’ life, from his early discovery in the 1950s to his untimely death in 1977. Elvis’ meteoric rise to fame is dizzying, and his early romance with Priscilla is glamorous. Presley and Parker are riding high, until Parker’s greed gets the better of them both. My friend described Elvis’ later life as “a fatal car crash in slow motion”, and the movie captures this excruciating decline. The entire saga of Elvis vs Parker reminds me of Britney Spears’ recent conservatorship battle, except that Britney was able to break free from her manipulative father… while Elvis vanished under Parker.

The movie uses symbols of comic book superheroes, intertwining this imagery with a fair amount of references to Elvis’ stillborn twin Jesse. I truly believe that Elvis was either touched by an Angel, or he sold his soul to the Devil. There’s something supernatural about his talent and charisma, I just don’t know which side was driving him.

Music

A movie about the man who changed American music forever is required to highlight his extensive library. Butler caught my attention with the first notes of Baby Let’s Play House, but his unrestrained rendition of Trouble is irresistible. I’ve never been super into Elvis’ early catalogue, but I enjoy his later gospel hymns. As expected, the musical “cornerstone thesis” of the movie is Unchained Melody, which I’ve been singing for a week straight. Luhrmann made this gorgeous song even more poignant by splicing Butler’s performance with the King’s actual farewell show, and a small life montage.

Butler sings the vocals for all of Elvis’ earlier works in the film, but performances later in life are dubbed with the originals. I think this is a good idea. Elvis’ iconic voice can never truly be replicated, but Butler should seriously consider putting out some rock albums.

One of the songs that grips me is If I Can Dream. Elvis’ vocals are in the movie and the soundtrack also features a cover from Máneskin. The grit and gravel in both versions and the determined, yearning lyrics propel me to pump my fist and scream along. It’s reminiscent of I Know Where I’ve Been from Hairspray, but with more growl and less saccharine.

Race, Sex, and Politics

The film does an excellent job of showing just how controversial and groundbreaking Elvis was in his day in his racially charged approach to music and sexuality, and the depth with which a tumultuous century shaped him.

It’s no secret that many of Elvis’ greatest hits were originally written and performed by Black artists, and the film pays respect to BB King, Little Richard, and Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Austin does a good job playing up Elvis’ comfort in Black spaces and discomfort in “family-friendly spaces”.

I mentioned that Trouble is my favorite song that Butler performs in the film. This scene is the culmination of a battle between Elvia and the general public. Amid cries for him to tone down his “vulgar” hip movements, and across town from a segregationist rally, Elvis proclaims “them New Yorkers ain’t gonna change me none” and proceeds to cause an actual police riot. This scene is a man who knows himself, knows that his raw sexuality is a gift from God, and isn’t afraid to make a scene.

Throughout the movie, we see the impact of the violence of the sixties through Elvis’ eyes. His reactions to the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are profound, and they reflect a traumatized nation during a tumultuous decade.

Conclusion

If you’re still reading at this point, I would love to hear your thoughts on the movie, and perhaps your memories of the living legend. I admire how Luhrmann made Elvis a mirror of the nation that adored him. This is a good choice for family night, with something for parents and teens to enjoy and ponder. I give it 10/10 for Butler’s tremendous performance, Luhrmann’s signature aesthetics, and a soundtrack to groove to. Long live the King of Rock!

A classic shot of the King of Rock and Roll

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