If you only watch one film in a theatre this summer, make it Elvis.
That's it, we got that out of the way. Even if there are other films out there worth your time, you'll want to watch Baz Luhrmann's latest oeuvre, a masterpiece of sight, history and sound, in a movie theatre where it belongs. You can have your indie hits and world cinema picks streamed to you, but you must get out of your home and sit in a darkened movie house surrounded by people and overwhelmed by the power of Elvis, the legend, for this one. And if Elvis the film isn't a blow-your-socks off hit this summer season, I think I'll relocate to Antartica and start writing about penguins. And I don't mean the cinematic kind.
We are all very familiar with the story of Elvis and his tragic ending. But what is amazing with Luhrmann's retelling of an all too familiar tale is how he manages to keep our attention throughout the 2 hours and 39 minutes of the film, while also introducing so many new themes, twists and turns into the life of the American music legend that I felt like I was watching a thriller -- so on the edge of my seat I was throughout the film. Perhaps it is the brilliant idea of telling his audience about Elvis through the words of his shady manager, the Colonel Tom Parker, played by the magnificent, albeit unrecognizable Tom Hanks in a fat suit, sporting a double chin (we call it a "pappagorgia" in Italian and that fits it best) and flaunting a weird accent that sounds like a cross between Louisiana Southern American and Afrikaaner.
During the press conference for the film in Cannes, Luhrmann's producer of 30-plus years, as well as his real-life wife Catherine Martin said about the Aussie filmmaker "his lens is always on the future, he pushes you beyond what you think is possible," which is the perfect way to describe both the man and his extraordinary work. Elvis is Luhrmann's masterpiece, a diamond among precious gems that include Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby. He may not be your cup of cinematic tea, but you cannot deny that his work is spectacular.
So, let's talk about the story, even if it's one we know well. Or think we do. Elvis Presley (played to absolutely sultry, sexy perfection by American actor Austin Butler) is a kid with what Luhrmann calls "a big hole in his heart." Born as a twin, his brother died and his mother has been mourning his death ever since. When his father lands in jail, they become one of the few white families growing up in a Black neighborhood in the American south. Surrounded by Black singers, Elvis imitates what he sees and hears and becomes a bit of a sensation when one of his songs is released on Sun Records in Memphis. That's when Colonel Tom Parker (fat-suit-wearing, bald Hanks) comes in. He is a self described "Snowman" to Elvis' showman and what Hanks himself calls a "great carny" a conman who enjoys robbing the rich as much as he does conning the poor. During the Cannes press conference Hanks said there would have been "no Elvis without the Colonel Tom Parker and no Colonel Tom Parker without Elvis -- it was a symbiotic relationship.” We will never get to know how far Elvis would have gone without the Colonel, because we may never have even come to know Elvis had this pudgy man with a dubious past never crossed his path.
The story of Elvis further delves into the complex dynamic between Presley and Parker, a partnership spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America. Of course, central to that journey is one of the most significant and influential people in the King's life, Priscilla Presley (played to perfection by Aussie thespian Olivia DeJonge). Elvis the Pelvis, or EP as he's affectionately called in the film, may not always do right by his wife but his heart is always in the right place. After all, Elvis is all erotic moves, luscious lips and kohl-lined eyes in this sexy incarnation by Butler (did I mention he's smoldering? Yes, I think I did already. But the actor is that hot) and we get his appeal, finally seeing the man behind the myth as the true charismatic superpower he really was.
The relationship between Elvis and Colonel Parker was complicated. Parker was a Dutch man, possibly wanted by the authorities for a crime in back in Breda, Holland and because of his illegal immigrant status, never allowed Elvis to tour outside the US. It's not something we often think about because the figure of Elvis is global, but aside from two or three dates in Canada, the King never left the US -- due to Parker's manipulations. What would have become of Elvis had he travelled like other artists of his time? Would he have been seen as less of a threat to the American racist establishment of the time if he had been able to tour in Europe and beyond? Certainly his jiggling pelvis wouldn't have appeared a threat in France or Italy, at a time when instead the US seemed to frown on sexuality. We have to remember that the King started out before the great sexual "liberation" of the late 60's and 70's. He was the catalyst, one may argue, or at least the prelude to free love, flower children and all that.
Aside from pondering cinematically whether there would have been an Elvis without Tom Parker, Luhrmann also raises the question of cultural appropriation, and I was left wondering if in this age of cancel culture, the King would have become the legend he was. Would his gyrating hips and African American inspired sounds, and even songs like 'In the Ghetto' which plays over the closing titles, have been insulting to what a twenty-something woman I recently met so wisely called "the dandelion generation"? Instead, the backdrop of the 50's, 60's and 70's shaped Elvis' career and his political incorrectness is what propelled his music, and his myth forward.
Elvis was part of the subculture, the amalgamations of all things American before they were considered cool which allowed artists like Eminem and Doja Cat, incidentally both featured on the soundtrack of the film, to develop. The sounds mixed in with Elvis classics, sung by both the King and Butler, include a kaleidoscope of artists and genres from country, to hip hop and early gospel.
I'll admit I was skeptical before going in to watch Elvis. Baz Luhrmann's name written five time on the poster, the flamboyance with which the filmmaker carries himself all made me think this would be over the top. It is, make no mistake. Also, after watching Liza Johnson's 2016 wonder Elvis & Nixon starring Michael Shannon as the King, I wondered if another film was needed on the legend, and how Butler would outdo Shannon's fabulously complex performance.
I was wrong. On all counts. Because Elvis is divine. It is a masterpiece of colossal measures, featuring sublime clothes, (Priscilla's are all by Prada and Miu Miu, so wrap your head around that!) settings and music.
Elvis reminded me of that unabashed joy I felt as a child when I watched John Travolta in Grease, one, two, three or more times in the cinema. In fact, too many times to count or remember now. But Butler and Luhrmann and Hanks' Col. Parker recreated that power, that musical feel-good, while you also learn something you didn't know, feeling on the big screen, the kind of thrilling experience you carry around with you for days after watching the film. I can't wait to watch Elvis again, and will do so as soon as the film is released in movie theatres. Yes, I love it. That much. And my arms don't stretch wide enough to show you how much.
This is in your face, cinematic entertainment at its very best, making the best use of the magic of the cinema and the energy of the audience's collective experience. Plus it features a cast that should be immediately handed their own personalized Oscar statuettes. And while we are at it, please make a special, Elvis-clad one, complete with a gold oversized buckle for Baz Luhrmann himself. Give this man an Oscar please!
Elvis releases in the US on June 24th, in the UK on June 22nd and in the Gulf Region on June 23rd. It is family entertainment and appropriate for all ages and audiences.
Australia, USA, 2022, 2 hrs, 39 mins
Dir: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Story by Baz Luhrmann andJeremy Doner; screenplay by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner
Producers: Gail Berman, producer; Rory Koslow, production executive; Baz Luhrmann, producer; Catherine Martin, producer; Kevin McCormick, executive producer; Patrick McCormick, producer; Andrew Mittman, executive producer; Courtenay Valenti, executive producer; Schuyler Weiss, producer
Worldwide distribution: Warner Bros.
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Editing: Jonathan Redmond, Matt Villa
Music: Elliott Wheeler
Production design: Catherine Martin, Karen Murphy
Costumes: Catherine Martin
With: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Alton Mason, Richard Roxburgh and Helen Thomson