Hollywood has this weird habit of restarting this engine that cranks out about four or five biopics about troubled music stars every five years or so: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman,” and, more recently, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” In my opinion, ever since “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” the music biopic has become passé. Sure, the actors portraying the burning stars in these films always end up with some well-earned hardware, but the surrounding films have been, to put it nicely, subpar. It’s almost become as cliche as the Academy’s penchant for nominating period pieces for best picture. It seems that today, if you want to win an Oscar, you have to play a real person who was both popular and troubled. With Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” however, I feel this is a familiar formula done in a different sheen.
Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) is a circus promoter who wishes to run the greatest show on Earth. A show that makes people feel feelings they aren’t sure they should feel, all while emptying their wallets without knowing any better. Managing popular country musician Hank Snow has had its perks, but when he runs into a black song on the radio being sung by a white kid, Parker has to know more. That kid, playing the Louisiana Hayride with his little band and superstitious mother, is one Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). Elvis’s show not only puts butts in seats, but he gets the crowds feeling things they don’t know they should be. This is Colonel Parker’s big break. Throughout the years, Elvis and Parker struggle to please Elvis’s sensibilities and Parker’s wallet, but who will come out on top?
Baz Luhrmann’s particular style of filmmaking was the right call for Elvis’s flamboyant act, and I think that spirit is imbued in every scene, for better or for worse. Austin Butler earns every bit of that Oscar nod, but with all the other performances we’ve seen this year, I don’t think he’ll be holding that statuette when it’s all said and done. The elephant in the room, Tom Hank’s Tom Parker, is a pile of odd choices that in the end leads to a polarizing performance that I watch more in the sense of a nature documentary. I look upon his weird accent and fat suit with an inquisitive view, and there’s a tendency for that performance to distract from all the good this film does. That good? I don’t know if there’s another style of filmmaking that can do the spirit of Elvis its due diligence. This film, much like the man himself, is an epic in every sense of the word. The editing can become this jumbled mess of color and sound that really almost makes one feel like you’re on the same stuff that’s going through Elvis’s veins. Every choice is big, as is every performance. This movie has a lot of soul, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of these biopics coming out today.
I commend every person who worked on this film (yes, even Tom Hanks), for really putting forward some quality work. They could’ve pretty easily phoned in most of the aspects of this film, and because it’s a movie about Elvis, it was bound to be popular. Luhrmann, Butler and Hanks all made strong choices, arguably stronger than most would, and the end product is something that is going to be truly unique in the pantheon of music biopics.