My grandmother who I referred to as ‘Little Maw’ was an avid Elvis Pressley fan. She had two dolls of his in perfect, unopened packaging and every Christmas it became tradition in our family to listen to Elvis’ Christmas album while decorating. Little Maw passed away in the summer of 2019 so when I went to the theaters to see this film it felt like I was watching it for the both of us.
Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis was everything I was expecting it to be. Big, energetic, and over the top with its telling of the story of the ‘King of Rock-n-Roll’. The cinematography was hands down beautiful. From the way the camera flowed as if following along on a roller coaster. It felt like a carnival ride as we, the audience, followed Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks) and his retelling of how Elvis rose to stardom. If you have ever seen any other of Lurhmann’s films i.e. The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rogue!, etc. They each have a style that is distinctly Lurhmann’s style and Elvis is no exception. It captures the gritty yet flashy aesthetic one would expect for a biopic of The King.
The soundtrack is another component that brings this film to life. Hearing music from artists like Doja Cat, Diplo, CeeLo Green, Swae Lee, and Eminem creates a unique experience for the viewer. As we hear these modern songs; most of which are by Black artists or inspired by Black artists and HipHop culture, the viewer can in a sense experience what many viewed Elvis’ music as circa 1950s. White audiences viewed his music as rebellious and many listeners believed he was Black when they heard his music on the radio. I was also blown away by Austin Butler and his vocals. He sang some of the songs in the film and for the soundtrack and before the film we were treated to a special pre-show practice of him strumming the guitar and singing “That’s Alright (Mama)”. Butler not only gave a wonderful performance but sang almost exactly like Elvis. It wasn’t over the top and it wasn’t like many when they try to impersonate. It was genuine and really felt authentic to how Elvis sang and spoke. I did not expect to hear him sing in this film but I was pleasantly surprised and rather enjoyed his renditions of the classic songs.
The performances are what really brought this entire film together. Tom Hanks was no longer this loveable actor who I had grown up watching on my television screen. Instead he had now become a grifter. A sleazy character who took life as Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager. He became this real life figure who drained Elvis and kept him subdued under his thumb for his own profit. Then there is the Oscar worthy performance given by Austin Butler. He didn’t just watch a few videos on Elvis and practice an impersonation, he truly transitioned into The King. From his mannerisms, the way he spoke and sang, the way he moved and walked; it was all there. The performances of both these lead actors as well as the supporting cast of Olivia DeJonge, Dacre Montgomery, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. to name a few, brought Lurhmann’s vision to fruition in a film that I honestly can’t wait to watch again.
While all of the aforementioned reasons elevate this film and make it a dangerous Oscar contender, the film did have its shortcomings. It’s no secret that Elvis Presley profited off of the music of Black musicians and made it popular amongst a White audience. The film does capture this, it shows amazing portrayals of famous Black artists such as B.B. King, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and Malia Jackson. However, it adds in historical issues of the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement and pushes Elvis into this box of ‘white savior’ archetype. I would’ve liked to see more of this discussed within the film however, I didn’t expect much with that regard from a biopic. That is the one issue Hollywood continues to face is to highlight the true flaws of a beloved figure that society has lifted above all others. While I cannot speak too much on this being a white woman, I would encourage readers to also examine reviews from Black reviewers to get a varied perspective on their take on the film when it comes to addressing this core issue.
Despite the glossing over of the profiteering Elvis did when it came to his music and style; I still feel as though the film, for what it’s worth, was an overall enjoyable film. We can critique a film and highlight its flaws but we can also enjoy some parts of it as well. Don’t go in expecting it to be a hard hitting, historical narrative of the life of Elvis Aaron Presley. Instead, grab some popcorn and a peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich and enjoy the ride that Lurhmann takes you on with flashy cinematography, an amazing soundtrack, and performances of a lifetime that bring to life the larger than life King of Rock-n-Roll.