By John H. Foote
(**) In theatres
Let’s be clear: Elvis had a danger about him that this film never approaches, a sexual energy that they just did not capture. One of the best-looking men of the last century, impossibly good looking in his prime, Elvis was a macho man in big capital letters. He knew his movements would have women throwing their panties on the stage, and he loved it. He had a swagger few rock stars have ever matched, and a good ol’ boy charm that pleased moms and dads. Men were not jealous of Elvis because they wanted to be just like him. He had it all and was beloved by all. How sad he would live only 42 years and die on a toilet. I was a teenager, watching a baseball game on TV, when the news broke. I wasn’t a huge Elvis fan but could appreciate why it was breaking news. By then, his star had begun to fade. He was reduced to playing Vegas night after night, his swagger long gone, overweight, busting out of his costumes. He had started to resemble an Elvis impersonator. By 1977, Bruce Springsteen had adorned the covers of Newsweek and Time in the same week, hailed as the future of Rock and Roll, music had become about something more than hound dogs and burning love, and Elvis seemed like a relic. Old footage of his concerts displayed an astounding talent, but by the time he died, it was long gone.
Who knows why it has taken nearly half a century for Hollywood to make a film about his life? There was a superb made-for-TV movie directed by John Carpenter in 1979 entitled, like this one, Elvis, with a remarkable Kurt Russell performance that earned the actor an Emmy nomination. Had it been a theatrical release, he would have earned an Academy Award nomination, he was that good. Russell did what great biographical films should do, he captured the soul of the character, recreating Elvis every second he was onscreen. He was electrifying.
The first thing you have to excuse in watching this new Elvis biography is that the lead actor does not look a great deal like Elvis Presley. Could they have done better on the casting, finding someone who looked more like Elvis Aaron Presley? Likely, but I doubt they would have found an actor who so gave himself over to the role. I have never cared much about whether an actor or actress looks like the real-life character they are playing. Anthony Hopkins looked nothing like Richard Nixon yet captured that stooped walk, as though the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and that speech pattern, as though he had to always be thinking about what he was saying. Best of all, he captured the sadness of Nixon, a man who rose to the very top of the world only to fall because he never felt he deserved it.
Daniel Day Lewis looked precisely like Lincoln and gave a stunning performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) and Dustin Hoffman sort of looked like Lenny Bruce in Lenny (1974) but was like a ghost of the real man, a haunting performance. The rash of rock star biographies are not going to leave us any time soon. I thought Jennifer Hudson was superb as Aretha Franklin in Respect (2021) and Taron Egerton magnificent as Elton John in Rocket Man (2019) but did not share the adoration for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). How he won an Oscar I will never understand.
Austin Butler recreates the moves onstage and pulls off that Elvis swagger with confidence. Butler is best known as one of Charles Manson’s minions (Tex) who comes to kill in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) but is thwarted by a deadly Brad Pitt and his killer dog. Landing the role of his life in this film, he does not disappoint, nailing the moves Elvis brought to his concert acts, driving the women in the crowd to hysterics. He burns brightest during those sequences. The accent is spot on, and he has that hangdog look Elvis perfected. He captures that sadness in Elvis that puzzled many. It is often a towering performance in a big, brash, loud film, the sort of thing we have come to expect from Baz Luhrmann ever since his kinetic Moulin Rouge! (2001). I loved his version of The Great Gatsby (2013), which to this day I consider the best adaptation of the book, even with the unnecessary additions. But no question his films are an experience. He takes liberties, and they are often more of an alarming visual experience than a piece of cinema. Calling this a true biography is wrong; it’s more like the story of Elvis presented to us as an acid flashback (based on what I’ve heard). If you are looking for a accurate Elvis biography, this is not it…at all.
For two and a half hours, we are plunged deep into the life of Presley as seen through the eyes of his lifelong manager Colonel Tom Parker, portrayed as an exploitive gargoyle by Tom Hanks with the help of much latex. Though the accent is mysterious, Hanks conveys what Parker believed about Elvis: he was a rock and roll giant. Parker loved him. When Presley went into the army to do his patriotic duty for his country, he was worried he might be forgotten by the absence of new material. But Parker brilliantly kept him in the public eye, made his service in the army front page news, made him humble, and people loved him even more. Where I think the film goes wrong is making Parker the lead character. The film is entitled Elvis and I would think most of us are expecting a film about Elvis, not a juke-box musical as witnessed by Parker.
With the incredible life Presley led, and it was truly incredible, why could the writers not glean the facts and create a story about this rock star and his sad descent into drugs? Why not talk about his habit of eating the same meal day after day until he tired of it, or the parade of girls ushered into the infamous Jungle Room in Graceland? Or his near obsessive connection to his mother? Why not talk about his childlike quality which led country singer Waylon Jennings to observe that he never grew up.
In the end the film is fast paced hallucinatory trip through the life of Elvis. There is truth within the film, but not a lot, and it is rather sanitized. Elvis was a sex fiend, but his many women were all willing participants. No one had to force anyone to have sex with Presley. There was usually a line up. Why not just tell the truth about the man?
Elvis was a lethal entertainer, he knew exactly what audiences expected of him and gave it to them even when he was grossly overweight, looking downright stupid in that white sequined suit open to his navel. With his big gut hanging out, his eyes small and pig-like staring out from the layers of fat and wrinkles on his face, he was a shadow of what he had been. Though Butler tries, and indeed gives a great performance, he never gets inside the head of Elvis and brings him to us. Gary Busey did that in The Buddy Holly Story (1978) and earned an Oscar nomination for it. Try as he might, no such nomination will come to Butler.
Unfortunately, Hanks delivers the worst performance he has given since The Lady Killers (2004, and this is a man who seldom goes wrong.
The cinematography and film editing are superb as always in a Luhrmann film, and the sound is excellent, but those features don’t draw the crowds.
Despite an interesting performance from the actor, he is never Elvis to us. But he does more than just impersonate. Elvis-light maybe? I hate to attack him because he landed the role of a lifetime with a respected director. I doubt he had much influence on the screenplay, which is the film’s undoing. So much is known about Elvis, why not just write the truth. Start with Wikipedia …
And back to Kurt Russell … bravo … what a performance you gave.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.