Now streaming–Elvis, the latest music biopic, nominated for eight Oscars

Review by C.J. Bunce

Eight Oscar nominations in some years may be reason to get you to try on a movie you ordinarily might skip.  But in the pandemic era it seems like the movies nominated for Oscar are several steps below what we’ve seen in the past.  One genre you can usually bank on is the music biopic, and director Baz Lurhmann’s latest, the sprawling, overly long Elvis, fits the bill.  It’s good, just not great, but it’s easy to watch and reminisce along with.  Better yet, it’s streaming now on HBO Max.

First off, where does Elvis stand in the history of the rock music biography on the big screen?  The bar was first set by Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story in 1978.  Val Kilmer reset it seemingly conjuring Jim Morrison from the other side in The Doors in 1991.  Then Rami Malek came along and upped the ante as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018.  Malek’s performance was exquisite–one of the decade’s most immersive, riveting, and powerful performances, inhabiting the one-of-a-kind performer in a sweeping whirlwind of music and seismic spectacle celebrating individuality.

As Elvis Presley, the undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, actor Austin Butler gives it all he has, and obviously works every acting bone in his body to bring Elvis to life.  In many ways his challenge is Herculean–Elvis had several incarnations throughout his career, and everyone who lived during his years recalls each role he played in a changing America.  There’s young Elvis in black and white, changing small-town America overnight via television screens, literally introducing rock ‘n’ roll to the world.  There’s wartime Elvis, movie drama Elvis, movie singalong Elvis, Elvis in that 1968 TV Christmas special, a slowly declining Elvis in Las Vegas, that strange bit where Elvis met President Nixon and became a deputy in the war on drugs, and the ill-fated, drugged-out, sad and desperate Elvis.  So Austin Butler’s challenge is like Tatiana Maslany in the Orphan Black series.  He’s not playing just one character, as you’ll find with his Oscar competitors–both incredible and sad for the real man who died at only age 42, looking like he was at least 65.  The movie skips the chapter with Nixon, it tap dances through the country and gospel songs, and it also doesn’t spend much time at all showing him making his hit movies, like Jailhouse Rock, Blue Hawaii, and G.I. Blues, or cutting individual albums.  Elvis probably never knew his most lasting legacy is his Here Comes Santa Claus, the only Elvis song still playing on the radio regularly every year.

Along with the constantly changing persona were the genres of music he carried forward.  Segments like Elvis’s Also Sprach Zarathustra introduction to C.C. Rider is perfectly re-created.  Most of what audiences remember are covers of earlier works.  But unlike The Doors and Bohemian Rhapsody, we only get snippets of his hit songs.  An epic movie about the #1 bestselling solo music artist of all time really needs to showcase the songs–we never get the feel for the soul that came through in many of his songs.  Instead, the 2 hours and 39 minutes is split with national treasure Tom Hanks as his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker.

Hanks is brilliant, easily one of his top performances, aided by some Oscar-nominated makeup prosthetics to make him look like a pudgy Willie Stark (oddly enough Hanks wasn’t nominated for his acting this time).  As much of the film that is about Elvis is about the showmanship of Parker, who by all accounts was the late 20th century manifestation of P.T. Barnum.  Did the producers think young Austin Butler couldn’t hold his own?  Did Hanks just want to revisit some of the fun he had in That Thing You Do!?  In actuality Hanks’ performance is a valuable component of the film and takes nothing from Butler’s performance, or Elvis’s influence on music and American culture.

Director Lurhmann is known only for a handful of films (like Quentin Tarantino): Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and The Great Gatsby.  He uses some of the strategies he’s employed before, especially sheer spectacle.  Elvis has few actual scenes–in the sense of narrative sequences–and is instead a rolling play of montages and snippets of Elvis’s life, like a vintage Movietone News reel.  Luhrmann makes great use of banners and marketing signs as chapter titles and scene changes, all in the style of the decade they represent.  None of the other big music biopics have done this, so if Lurhmann stands out for this movie then these details are key to his success.

The sad reality of Elvis’s life, and a theme Luhrmann wisely introduces only toward the end of the film, is the role of drugs on Elvis’s life–how they took him from his family, from his international aspirations, and made him a puppet of others in his final days.  In that way the film feels similar to The Doors and The People vs Larry Flynt.  (A pop biopic needs to feature Michael Jackson–the next biggest face of popular music to share their fate.)

Ultimately Elvis is worth seeing for a new generation that probably knows little of his impact on music, especially after multiple resurgences of The Beatles in documentaries recently.  Those who have counted themselves as fans of Elvis at one time or another will also appreciate Austin Butler’s care and attention to the beloved icon.  And for anyone who is a fan of Tom Hanks, this is very much another Tom Hanks movie, as good as his work as Ben Bradlee in The Post, but much better than his Mr. Rogers in the bizarre A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

Where does this stand in comparison to the other music biopics?  Consider all that have been made, going back to Clifton Webb as John Philip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever, James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story, the aforementioned Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba, the aforementioned Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.  The bottom line is Austin Butler’s Elvis is in the same league.  We’ve all seen entertainers try to put on Elvis shows.  None of them come close.  Butler doesn’t seem to channel Elvis like Malek or Busey or Kilmer channeled their icons, but he’s lots better than Dennis Quaid’s Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire and many others.  Butler’s Elvis may be as good as anyone could capture.

Watch for some familiar faces from genre favorites, including Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, X-Men: Apocalypse) as singer Jimme Rodgers Snow, David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean) as Hank Snow, and Stranger Things’ Dacre Montgomery as Steve Binder.  You’ll also swear they spliced in a clip of the actual Little Richard.  It’s a brilliant, quick portrayal by Alton Mason.

Likely to pick up at least the Best Makeup Oscar, Elvis is now streaming on HBO Max, and available on home video here at Amazon.



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