It's been nearly a decade since a new Baz Luhrmann film graced the screens of cinemas. The last time was in 2013 with his glitzy, raucous adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The film had originally been slated for a winter 2012 release but was later pushed back to the following summer--signaling a studio that didn't have confidence in its awards chances. When Gatsby finally came out, it was greeted with mixed reviews from critics, but generally warm reception from general audiences. I was beginning to wonder when we'd see another Luhrmann picture and what he could possibly do next.
During Luhrmann's absence, the Hollywood trend of making biopics about famous people for Oscar bait purposes grew rapidly. In the past few years, it seems that biopic films are never-ending. Oscar voters can't help but nominate them because they over-rely on the comparison between an actor's imitation and their subject to determine whether or not someone has given a good performance. So they keep getting made, and they each seem more and more "by-the-numbers" each time. Frankly, I'm weary of the genre. When I heard Luhrmann was helming an Elvis biopic, I thought that he was one of the few directors I could think of who could get me interested in a biopic again.
Baz Luhrmann's Elvis chronicles the famed career of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) and the complicated relationship he had with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The story begins in 1955 when the Colonel witnesses a young unknown Elvis perform on stage and instantly sees the raw talent he possesses. The Colonel knows that in the right hands, Elvis is bound for stardom, and he wants to be along for the ride. He also sees dollar signs in his and Elvis's future and he plans to do everything he can in his power to protect his investments...even if it isn't in Mr. Presley's best interests. Elvis yearns to be his authentic self, but his naivete allows him to be taken advantage of by the Colonel time and time again.
Elvis is a tale of two performances--one that is a star-making revelation in Austin Butler's turn as Elvis, and the other is the distractingly bad portrayal of Colonel Parker by Tom Hanks. Butler is electrifying as Elvis and completely loses himself in the role. He's an absolute joy to watch and brings both charisma and a raw physicality necessary to believably step into the shoes of such an icon. The magnetic Butler shares the screen with Hanks, who wears a fat suit and speaks in a ridiculous, phony accent. It's jarring, to say the least, but somehow under the assured direction of Luhrmann, it is able to work against the odds.
Baz Luhrmann has such a singular style and voice, and it's a completely welcome one in days when daring filmmaking feels so scarce. He's able to make something as stale as a biopic seem fresh and fascinating, even if it felt at times overly long. While I would have liked to see some more insight into who Elvis was apart from being an amazing performer, I still totally appreciate what the film was going for. At times, I totally felt transported into the era, actually feeling what it might have been like to attend these concerts and being able to see these larger-than-life performances in person. For that, I can't help but admire the film.
Elvis is without a doubt one of the better biopics to come out in years due to an outstanding lead performance by Austin Butler coupled with Baz Luhrmann's over-the-top direction. While Luhrmann didn't seem like an obvious choice to direct this film, it turns out he was perfectly suited to make the King's story as epic in scale as it deserved to be.