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Elvis is the Top Gun: Maverick of music biopics

Baz Luhrmann’s big swing at the King’s life is a thrilling theatrical spectacle

Elvis Presley looks out the window of a limo, with neon Vegas signs reflected in the glass Image: Warner Bros.
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Musical biographies are one of the most reliable genres in Hollywood’s arsenal. They trade on singalong appeal, showy star performances, and brand recognition that would make even Disney envious, and they’re often box-office bankers: The 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody made an incredible $911 million worldwide. So it’s surprising that it’s taken until 2022 for anyone to make a large-scale biopic about the greatest music icon of them all, the originator of rock stardom, Elvis Presley. And it turns out that Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann is the perfect choice to make an Elvis movie.

Since his run at movie stardom in the 1960s, the King has haunted cinema like a ghost. He’s been summoned as a symbolic spirit by Val Kilmer in True Romance and Bruce Campbell in Bubba Ho-Tep. His distinctive cadences and energy have been channeled into other, fictional roles, like Nicolas Cage’s Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart. His legend has been dissected and explored for meaning by questing documentaries like The King. But only one drama has told his story straight: 1979’s Elvis, directed by horror maven John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. It’s a decent TV movie that decorously draws the curtain in 1970, before Presley’s decline and death.

Perhaps filmmakers have been reticent to take on his story because Presley’s iconography is intimidating in two ways: for its power and for its fragility. Everything about him has been internalized, rehashed, parodied, and remixed by popular culture to such an extent that it seems impossible to look at afresh, or to take at face value. His otherworldly looks and his eccentric mannerisms; his journey from ineffable cool to gaudy kitsch; his moves, his poses and his voice, that voice, with its purrs and growls and yelps and hollers and mumbles; his vivid youth and his pitiable, bloated end. How can you possibly cast him? How can you tell that story with any kind of stability?

Elvis throws a pose and sings in front of his band Image: Warner Bros.

It turns out that the crucial casting choice is not the actor, but the director. Baz Luhrmann is exactly what an Elvis biography needs: He has no restraint, no shame, and no self-consciousness. He’s the only filmmaker who could address the legend of Elvis Presley with the simultaneous high camp and emotive sincerity it deserves.

He’s also a master of musical set-pieces. That’s what makes his new film Elvis — starring Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as his notorious promoter Colonel Tom Parker — a must-see in theaters. The director who dropped “Love Is in the Air” at the ecstatic conclusion of Strictly Ballroom and turned “Roxanne” into an anguished, tragic tango for Moulin Rouge! has long had a talent for using pop hits to recontextualize his flashy melodramas, and in doing so finding new wells of emotion and relevance in the songs themselves. In Elvis, he brings all his virtuoso technique, his fearless anachronism, and his raw feeling to bear on staging a series of key performances from the King’s career.

These knockout sequences — half a dozen of them at least — are as audiovisually thrilling as anything else you can see in the cinema in 2022. They’re up there with the dizzying aerial ballet of Top Gun: Maverick. Every one is a feat of staging, editing, sound design, and musicological daring. A flashback to the Black slums where Presley grew up mashes up the sexual heat of the blues juke joints with the fervor of a gospel tent to stunning effect. Luhrmann is unafraid to crash contemporary hip-hop or wailing guitar solos into the sound mix to bring the raw excitement of Presley’s performances home. (And those of his Black contemporaries and heroes as well: One breathless sequence on Memphis’ Beale Street sees performances by Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and B.B. King meld and overlap.)

Big Mama Thornton sings in a nightclub in Elvis Photo: Kane Skennar/Warner Bros.

This is Luhrmann’s first and most important stroke of genius: In order to cut through half a century of mythmaking and image distortion around Presley, the music must come first. The second is knowing that his story needs a focus, and that Elvis Presley needs a dramatic foil if he’s going to seem like a real person. Luhrmann finds both of these in Parker, an untrustworthy, carnivalesque figure who exploited Presley financially, closed off many paths his career might have taken, and is thought by some to have driven Presley to his early grave.

Elvis casts Parker as both villain and (unreliable) narrator. The film damns him, even as he’s orchestrating it from beyond the grave, as the latest version of his “greatest show on Earth.” Casting Hanks in this role is a gamble that pays off, for the most part. It’s fair to say he isn’t a natural at the fat-suit-and-funny-voice school of acting, and it stifles some of his charm, but not all of it. A Gary Oldman or a Christian Bale might have been technically superior, but they would have pulled the story in a darker direction, and they lack Hanks’ warm comic flourishes and deep well of empathy. Luhrmann taps into these to find a touching, tragic dimension to the doomed, codependent relationship between the two men.

As Elvis, Butler is almost pretty enough, and he nails the drawl and the mannerisms without letting them overwhelm his delicate portrait of a half-shy, insecure man who could only intermittently find the courage to let his incandescent talent lead the way. He doesn’t manage to locate Presley’s depths, or the insane highs of his delusional ego. But Luhrmann, as obsessed with the stage as ever, is more interested in Presley as a performer than as a psychological subject. And on stage, Butler (who sings some numbers himself, and blends his performance with original Elvis recordings elsewhere) is dynamite: total physical conviction and lightning-rod charisma.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Sanders in Elvis Photo: Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.

It’s just as well, since the script (co-written by Luhrmann and three collaborators) structures Elvis’ story around several volcanic concerts. There’s a rural hoedown where Parker is first struck by the delirium caused by Presley’s thrusts and gyrations, and a gig where Presley furiously rebels against the Colonel’s order to contain his “wiggling” after Presley’s moves start a moral panic. There’s the 1968 TV special when Elvis rediscovers his voice after his empty Hollywood years, and voices America’s anguish at the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy with an emotional protest song.

And there’s the first of the widescreen, spangled, sweat-drenched Vegas shows, when he debuts “Suspicious Minds.” Each time, Luhrmann strains every filmmaking muscle to put the audience in the room, to electrifying effect. And each time, the camera lingers on Parker as he looks on with either annoyance or rapacious glee. But eventually, Hanks lets these emotions slip away, as well as the possessiveness and jealousy beneath them, and shows us the same entranced, uncomprehending awe at Elvis’ god-given talent that his fans felt.

These are the narrative high points of a mostly conventionally structured cradle-to-grave, rags-to-riches biography. At 160 minutes, it’s very long, but also somehow breathless and rushed — Luhrmann handles the entirety of the 1960s Hollywood years in a single montage. He and the scriptwriters hit the beats they have to: Presley getting drafted into the Army, his mother’s death, meeting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and separating from her, his pill-popping and paranoia. Apart from one very moving late song sequence, Luhrmann curiously chooses not to show Presley’s late-life weight gain, perhaps because it offends his aesthetic sensibilities — he’s pursuing a noble, swoonsome kind of tragedy, not a grubby and degraded Raging Bull.

Elvis sings into microphone as fans stretch their arms out toward him Image: Warner Bros.

If there’s a throughline other than the relationship with the Colonel, it’s race, and the part it plays in Presley’s music. For some critics, Luhrmann has been too soft on Elvis’ appropriation of Black styles. But he doesn’t avoid the issue entirely. His counterargument, quite clearly laid out in the film, is that this was the music Elvis grew up with and sincerely loved, and it’s not his fault that a racist recording industry found him easier to sell than the artists he was inspired by.

Luhrmann shows Elvis in the early years singing R&B because it’s in his bones; he worries about getting arrested for it, but B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) tells him, “They ain’t going to arrest you. You’re white and famous. They’ll arrest me for crossing the street.” From the 1968 special onward, Presley can only make sense of his disintegrating life when he reaches for the spiritual purity of gospel. Luhrmann honors his Black inspirations by dropping them alongside him on the soundtrack, and in split-screen.

It’s a redemption of sorts, but it didn’t actually redeem him. Elvis, the great white megastar, was never arrested, but he eventually found himself in a different kind of prison. In some ways, his image is still trapped there. This ravishing, sad, exultant film — Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge! — puts him back where he belongs.

Elvis opens in theaters on June 24.

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