‘Elvis’ review: Baz Luhrmann’s bold biopic of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll

The 'Moulin Rouge!' director serves up a big-screen epic we can't help falling in love with

Who killed Elvis Presley? Was it the pills, the overworking, the hamburgers flown in from afar? Or was it his toxic relationship with sticky-fingered manager Colonel Tom Parker? Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic investigates it all, but focuses mostly on the latter – giving us a greatest hits tour of the King’s life from his jailer’s point of view.

We open on Parker’s final days. He’s a very ill man, stricken with diabetes, gout and finally a stroke. He wanders the streets of Las Vegas in a blurry, fevered dreamscape, stopping off at the casinos and concert halls where he gambled away Elvis’ millions and kept him performing every night for a pittance. Played by Tom Hanks, who steps into a rare villain role with dastardly panache, the Colonel narrates his demise like a guilty criminal pleading their case to the judge.

After this prologue, the film leaps backwards in time to 1940s Mississippi. During a fast-paced, flashy montage scene that’s vintage Luhrmann, Elvis skips through Presley’s dirt-poor beginnings. We get the boyhood rural hardship, the intense attraction to gospel music, and finally the move to Memphis. It slows down briefly for a tone-setting early performance filled with screaming girls and scowling men (that also introduces the hip-swivelling Austin Butler) – but soon speeds along again, packing in the rise of Elvismania, his European jaunt to Germany for national service, and marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). Later, attention turns to Elvis’ Hollywood ambitions – and eventual financial troubles – as the film builds towards a tragic climax in Vegas.

Though it plays like a glitzy musical in the mould of Bohemian Rhapsody, Elvis also works as a much-needed lesson about America’s cultural history. Some of the best moments see the star interact with his biggest influences – such as Little Richard ripping through ‘Tutti Frutti’ in a dingy backroom bar; or B.B. King providing a calm refuge (and some sage advice) when the attention starts to overwhelm him. Elvis owes his legacy to Black music – and Luhrmann is sure to namecheck as many of those rock and roll pioneers (Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arthur Crudup) as possible, often with well-cast cameos.

Naturally, this strong heritage filters through to the soundtrack, which boasts an almost festival line-up’s worth of modern chartbusters paying homage to Elvis and his predecessors. There’s all-conquering pop-rapper Doja Cat, who refits ‘Hound Dog’ with a fiery, trap-flavoured beat, as well as clever reworkings from the likes of Eminem, Kacey Musgraves, Stevie Nicks and even Euro-glam gladiators Måneskin. They aren’t strictly needed – Butler’s impressive vocals are worth a covers album on their own – but the modern sounds help freshen up a decades-old discography.

As with any movie about a real-life figure, some events have had to be cut. There’s no meeting with The Beatles at his Bel-Air home; certain important romances are omitted; and we don’t get to see much of pre-fame Presley learning his craft. Perhaps this is because Butler is so compelling as ‘Old Elvis’. Bloated by overindulgence, he lounges in his pitch-black, top-floor hotel suite popping pills to numb the pain – and popping more to keep him awake for those never-ending casino concerts. In one moving final scene, footage of Butler is spliced together with an actual performance of Presley filmed shortly before he died. He’s clearly intoxicated and an assistant has to hold the microphone for him as he plonks away at the piano. The overwhelming feeling is of sadness, but strangely admiration too. Even at his lowest, Elvis’ commitment to putting on a show for his fans was total. If only Parker had been as loyal, he might still be on-stage now.

Details

  • Director: Baz Luhrmann
  • Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge
  • Release date: June 24
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