The numbers vary from Internet source to Internet source, but the general consensus seems to be there were something like 200 Elvis Presley impersonators in the world at the time of the King’s death in 1977 and the number has grown to at least 35,000 today. And we’re not even including all the actors who have portrayed Elvis on TV and in the movies, from Kurt Russell to Jonathan Rhys Meyers to David Keith to Don Johnson to Harvey Keitel to Michael Shannon to Val Kilmer as the Elvis apparition who advises Christian Slater’s Clarence in “True Romance.”
So one can’t help but ask: With every chapter of the man’s life and times already so deeply etched into the pop culture landscape, do we really need another movie about the man and the myth and the legend that was Elvis Presley?
In the case of “Elvis,” the answer is a resounding YES, thanks to the gloriously excessive, razzle-dazzle direction of Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!”), a smoldering star turn performance from Austin Butler as the title character and a sure-to-be-polarizing but fantastically eccentric spin on Colonel Tom Parker, courtesy of a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hanks. This is 2 hours and 39 minutes of screen-popping, candy-colored, highly stylized, fever-dream showmanship that serves as a Greatest Hits compilation touching on the many, many permutations of Elvis, from malleable country bumpkin to sex symbol icon to B-movie star to seemingly irrelevant near has-been to the Comeback King to Las Vegas icon to his death at the age of 42, and it’s such a sprawling, amazing rollercoaster ride that it’s difficult to process the fact Presley has been dead longer than he was with us.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Baz Luhrmann and written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner. Rated PG-13 (for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking). Running time: 159 minutes. Opens Thursday after “early access” Tuesday screenings at local theaters.
If you thought the magnificently flamboyant Luhrmann was well-suited to put the flashiest of spins on “The Great Gatsby,” you can imagine what he does with the made-for-overkill mythology of Elvis — and from the moment we see a bejeweled version of the Warner Bros. Pictures logo, we know Luhrmann is going to flood our senses with a nonstop medley of arresting sights and sounds, never taking his foot off the directorial gas pedal. (Who wants to see a version of Elvis unplugged, am I right?)
“Elvis” is told through the skewed, self-serving, huckster’s perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, who was not a colonel and was born Andreas Cornelis van Kujik in the Netherlands (hence the strange Dutch/Southern hybrid accent), an admittedly great showman and promoter who latched onto Presley early on and rode his show pony into the ground, allegedly bilking Presley of millions and maneuvering him into making all sorts of deals that benefitted Parker first and Presley a distant second. Parker keeps trying to convince us he’s not the villain in story, as he we see him always lurking backstage, always making side deals to line his pockets or cover his gambling debts, always in the middle of everything while looking out for himself first, always spinning things with his almost cartoonishly evil cadence.
Luhrmann employs a sparkling array of visual and aural tactics, from period-piece graphics to sepia-toned flashbacks, from nostalgic color schemes to swooping camera movements to split screens and cool and creative match-cut transitions. We know Elvis didn’t write his own material and we know he appropriated, aka stole, the sounds of gospel and blues from Black artists, and perhaps more than any previous Presley biopic, “Elvis” continually acknowledges that, with the likes of BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason), Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey) getting their moments.
Still, the film’s fate rests on the shoulders of Austin Butler, who flashed serious movie-star potential as the evil fool Tex Watson in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and is mesmerizingly strong here. Butler doesn’t do an Elvis impersonation, but he does a stunningly good job of capturing the hip-swiveling, pink-suited Elvis who makes girls swoon and scream in a comedically effective early sequence; the ’60s Elvis who starred in a series of forgettable and dopey movies; the brilliant performer who made one of the most memorable pop-star comebacks of all time in a 1968 TV special, and the lost and borderline self-parodying Karate King who sweated and toiled on the Vegas stage and only occasionally touched greatness. Butler is an electric performer who shines in the spotlight when Elvis is onstage, but he also infuses Presley with an empathetic humanity and vulnerability. We know the man was hardly a saint, but we understand his sins.
Hanks’ characterization of Colonel Tom Parker is a big swing for someone who has held the unofficial title of America’s Most Likable Movie Star for more than 30 years. Some might argue he’s miscast, but I found the performance to be suitably oily, for despite Parker’s protestations, he IS the villain of the story. Even as Parker constantly reminds us that he “made” Elvis Presley (and there’s an element of truth to that), we see that time and again, he also contributed to the destruction of the man.
Still, for all its tragic elements and the heartbreak of an ending we know is coming, “Elvis” is a brilliant celebration of an artist who left a lasting and huge footprint on our culture.