I’m not sure what I was actually expecting this movie to be, but as I sat taking it all in, it quickly became obvious it was unlike any other movie depiction of Elvis Presley I’d ever seen.
Baz Lurmann managed to humanize Elvis in a way that makes you love him even more. Is that even possible? I don’t just mean, “Oh, I love Elvis even more since I saw this movie!” No. I mean, this movie somehow manages to strip away “Elvis, The King of Rock n Roll” and presents “Elvis, the human”, who is lonely, trapped, vulnerable, lonely and victimized by folks (I see you Colonel Tom Parker) so they could further their own self-centered pursuits at the expense of both his health and finances. You can’t help falling in love with him, new fan or old.
From the start, it takes great and delicate care to set up a running theme of his fear of losing everything he’s built in his life. You see a glimpse into his childhood in the Shake Rag area of Tupelo (where mainly poor African American families, along with a few poor white families, lived in dilapidated homes) as well as his life in Memphis. His love and desire of being the comic book hero from a young age was brought into play. The entire movie production, in true Baz Lurhmann fashion, has a certain theatrical and comic book flair throughout, but honestly, it works. Where they strip Elvis down to just his raw vulnerability and fears, they blanket him with a dazzling and emotional production, giving care to keep him wrapped in the glitz and glamour that was his, and only his, way of life back in a time no one else had ever experienced such things. It’s a fine balancing act that works.
The movie greatly showcases the heavy influence of African American gospel and blues music on Elvis from his childhood and throughout the rest of his life. It highlights his friendships with a young and already famous B.B. King, as well as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Little Richard, among others. These musical influences and friendships show up throughout the movie in wonderful ways and I LOVED it.
Elvis’ relationship with his manager, “The Colonel”, Tom Parker is the true epicenter of this movie. If there are going to be any major criticisms, it’s more than likely going to be about Tom Hanks’ portrayal of The Colonel, who was a traveling carnival worker, often referred to as a “snowman” (for snowing people under with a ruse to get their money, etc) and represented the likes of Hank Snow and others before seeing Elvis perform and becoming his manager exclusively. I believe Hanks may have taken a few liberties with his portrayal of this already vilified character, but I’m here to tell you, he committed 100%. Where I was afraid Baz was going to make Elvis look over the top and fake (as most movie depictions do), it was The Colonel who took that hit, squarely and rightfully so (in my opinion at least).
Their relationship is told from The Colonel’s viewpoint. It shows how his greed and fear held Elvis back from pursuing his dreams of being a serious movie star and going on world-wide tours (based on The Colonel’s fears of being found out as an illegal immigrant who could lose his free ride and be sent back to the pit of hell where he came from…I mean…to The Netherlands, in a heartbeat if he didn’t try and keep “his boy” under control.) If you already loathe The Colonel, you’re in for a whopping new load of loathing. If you liked him, you may not appreciate this depiction of him as much. (Were there ever any true Colonel fans though? Really?)
There is a sadness and an anger flowing from Elvis as he grows to believe he’s trapped in this increasingly one-sided relationship with Parker. From the beginning of this relationship, Elvis’ rebellious side comes to the top more and more, culminating in a moment where you believe he may actually get his wish of being free of this leech of a man once and for all, only to feel his own sadness and isolation enveloping all of us as we helplessly watch Elvis fall victim once again to this man’s deceit and emotional manipulation, all leading up to Elvis’ untimely death while never fulfilling his deepest desires, as the world knows all too well.
This movie does not cheapen the image of Elvis at all. If anything, they blew off all the glitz and sparkles (jumpsuits and diamonds) and managed to show him as a fragile and real human who got caught in a web of deceit and couldn’t ever find a way out from it. He was always just that little boy from Tupelo on the inside, trying to earn people’s approval and make his mama proud.
Baz Luhrmann, 100% well done, my man. Your attention to detail (ESPECIALLY in the concert and Comeback Special scenes) was superb! I have to also mention the soundtrack. I was scared I wouldn’t like it. I don’t. I love it.
Austin Butler…I have nothing but admiration. I know most of the top ETAs in the world, and what you did in your portrayal of Elvis was THE most professional portrayal of the man I’ve ever seen. (And yes, I love Kurt Russell’s portrayal in the 1979 movie Elvis, but I feel Austin’s portrayal will most definitely appeal to the younger generations who may not know much or anything of Elvis) You weren’t just playing as Elvis. You WERE Elvis in this movie. Congratulations to you, sir.
To Helen Thomson who portrays Elvis’ mother, Gladys..I give you a standing ovation, ma’am.
The ending will MESS YOU UP. It’s one of the most powerful and emotional endings to a movie on Elvis’ life I’ve ever seen. I ugly cried in the theater. I cried driving home. I cried all night. I tried telling my best friend about it and couldn’t talk for crying. I’m tearing up now as I write this, the day after seeing it. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that how they managed to go from Austin Butler to the actual footage of Elvis…man. Gut punch.
With minor details aside (that only the most attuned Elvis fans will notice such as historical accuracy in what songs were sang where in the timeline of Elvis’ career, clothing details, the accuracy of Beale Street, etc) I give this movie a 4.5 out of 5 stars. Only Elvis himself could have made it a full 5.
As of the time of this publication, this movie has a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes.