Wise men say only fools rush in.
Baz Luhrmann, Australian director of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!, appears to sing from the same hymn sheet because his visually extravagant biopic of Elvis Presley has a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on with more than two-and-a-half hours of breathlessly choreographed musical performances, impeccable costume design and nostalgia-drenched spectacle.
Austin Butler delivers a scintillating, sexually charged performance as the jump-suited showman from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Luhrmann’s camera fixates on his crotch, beginning with Presley’s first performance at the Louisiana Hayride, where “a skinny boy” in a loose-fitting pink suit metamorphoses into a pelvis-thrusting “superhero” and drives hordes of previously po-faced, unimpressed women in the audience into caterwauling harpies.
You can’t help falling in love with Butler’s sweat-soaked embodiment of a socially conscious showman, who believed in lending his voice to the youth of the era and affecting change through his music.
Villian of the story
Presley’s rise and fall is narrated by manager Colonel Tom Parker, an invidious presence at the mercy of gambling habits, who by his own voiceover admission could be considered “the villain of this here story”.
As portrayed by Tom Hanks with a sing-song accent of intentionally curious European origin, Parker is an odious, opportunistic parasite who dazzles the Presley family with the promise of riches then turns his star talent against the people he should trust.
“If you don’t do the business, the business will do you,” singer BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr) warns good friend Presley before the true price of fame has reduced the charismatic dreamer to a physically exhausted husk, unable to fulfil his Las Vegas residency without an injection backstage from a doctor.
When we first see Elvis as a boy (played by Chaydon Jay), he is intoxicated by gospel church music and feels the spirit of a pastor, who sermonises, “When things are too dangerous to say, sing!”
Presley takes this lesson to heart as he witnesses America’s bitter racial divisions while continuing to publicly support performers like BB King and Little Richard (Alton Mason).
He falls under the spell of Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), builds a home at Graceland for his parents Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) and Gladys (Helen Thomson) and slowly falls victim to Colonel Parker’s manipulations, rejecting a lucrative international tour because of security concerns stemming from high-profile assassinations including Martin Luther King and President John F Kennedy.
Elvis embodies Luhrmann’s filmmaking ethos of razzle-dazzling excess, energising each beautifully crafted frame with Mandy Walker’s ravishing cinematography, hyperkinetic camerawork and sumptuous period detail.
Glimpsing Presley’s story from Parker’s perspective creates a narrative tug of war between the film’s most emotionally complex and colourful characters.
The script can’t satisfyingly resolve that conflict – certain aspects are glossed over even with a luxurious 160-minute running time.
Suspicious minds won’t be soothed.
Our rating: 7.5/10
Released in Ireland: June 24th
(12A, 160 mins) Drama/Romance/Musical. Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Richard Roxburgh, Helen Thomson, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Alton Mason, Chaydon Jay. Director: Baz Luhrmann.