Elvis has arrived. And it’s not your usual biopic. It’s more about the essence of Elvis. Not on life as we hoped. That means it has nothing to do with those biopics about pop stars like Rocketman (Elton John) or Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddy Mercury and Queen) or even Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis).
But then it’s Luhrmann, who has long established that he sees things differently through his camera. Think William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, which I loved, and The Great Gatsby, which I didn’t. I put his Elvis somewhere in between.
On the one hand, Luhrmann plays freely with his timeline in Elvis. You might need Wikipedia nearby for reference. On the other hand, I say no because you might find out what important facts and events have been omitted. A lot.
Still, I love how Elvis captures the feel of an era through the accurate depiction of the images we remember from magazine pictures and television news. These familiar costumes have been so faithfully recreated.
You will love Austin Butler. Well, Presley was better looking, but this guy nailed it perfectly in every scene without ever falling into the dreaded caricature or because he’s Elvis, shall I say, impersonation. I don’t know what his real singing voice sounds like, but Butler does a very good imitation of Presley’s voice with Hound Dog, Baby Let’s Play House and Trouble. It is during these scenes that he best embodies the Presley spirit.
Tom Hanks is best ignored as Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was often said to be an obnoxious presence, exploiting Presley to the max and preventing him from becoming the artist he wanted to be. So if you can’t stand watching him or hearing him speak, it’s only because Hanks, like Parker, is just obnoxious. It’s not Forrest Gump.
Where Elvis excels is in his exploration of Presley’s musical roots and influences. This plays very well in the soundtrack album. The gospel in Sometimes I feel like a child without a mother, interpreted by Jasmine Sullivan, the spiritual black in Strange Things are Happening Every Day by Yola and even rock and roll in the person of its architect Little Richard, interpreted by Alton Mason are well represented. Remember that Presley became the king of rock and roll, but he didn’t invent rock and roll.
Presley’s transition from hillbilly rocker to the amazing singer he later became is also well-delineated through music. Luhrmann made sure the greatest recordings were heard in the soundtrack. Suspicious Minds, In the Ghetto, Burning Love, his dramatic take on Unchained Melody and the American Trilogy, the mix of Dixie, Battle Hymn of the Republic and All My Trials that was Presley’s “Coronation Moment” when he performed at his Madison Square Garden comeback concert in 1968.
Truth be told, if you can’t sit through Luhrmann’s kind of roller coaster movie, you can still appreciate his efforts by listening to the superb soundtrack album and watching the videos of certain songs.
Truly poignant is how the end of Presley’s marriage to Priscilla Beileu is framed as the visuals for I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You. This is sung by angel-voiced country music star Kacey Musgraves.
And so unexpectedly, I had a most wonderful WOW! moment while listening to the inspiring If I Can Dream, performed by the young Italian glam rock band Maneskin. I now have this strong urge to write that this version is even better than Presley’s original.
Sorry, I know this piece is about Elvis. But, I will have to keep in mind the name of this singer Maneskin. Damian David. What singer.