Elvis: Dir Baz Luhrmann (13th Floor Film Review)

Elvis may not be the first attempt to tell the story of The King Of Rock & Roll, but is certainly the most ambitious and, with Luhrmann directing, most dazzling.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Richard Roxburgh

After viewing this 159 minute epic last night, I went to sleep with visions of hound dogs dancing in my head. If nothing else, Luhrmann’s brand of over-the-top filmmaking will leave you feeling something. The question is, will you be inspired, emotionally moved or repulsed?

With Elvis, the answer is most likely “all three”.

The film is best broken down into two parts, before and after the ’68 “Comeback” Special.

Pre-68, Luhrmann (who co-wrote the script with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner) does a decent job of telling the old “if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound” story, although in this film, one would be led to think that famous quote should be attributed to Col. Tom Parker rather than Sam Phillips. In fact, Sun Records owner Phillips, along with his roster of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, barely get a mention here. Fortunately black blues and r&b musicians such as B.B. King, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Sister Rosetta Tharpe do. In fact the most riveting performance in the whole film, for me, was Alton Masin’s Little Richard performing Tutti Frutti…rock and roll at its rawest, sexiest and most visceral.

But, I digress (as does Luhrmann) and that’s part of the problem here, Elvis’ story is too big, too complex to tell in one sitting.

Getting back to the first half of the film, the focus is more on The Colonel (as played by Tom Hanks) than it does on Elvis. Initially, Hanks comes across as cartoonish…the obvious prosthetics don’t help…and the script is full of clichés.

The best performance is given by Helen Thomson as Elvis’ beloved mum, Gladys. The role was originally to have gone to Maggie Gyllenhaal, but scheduling conflicts kept her out, and as much as I admire Maggie, I thing Thomson was the better choice.

So, fast-forward to 1968 (and some may wish you could) and things are very different.

Over the past seven years Elvis has been cranking out B-grade movies while The Beatles and The Stones have re-invented pop music, Bob Dylan has been Blowin’ In The Wind and the Reverend Martin Luther King has been trying to get some justice for the black Americans. There are Civil Rights riots, assassinations and a war in Viet Nam.

The old Elvis is hopelessly irrelevant.

So, what does manager Tom Parker want to do to remedy the situation? Produce a Christmas special on NBC-TV, sponsored by Singer Sewing Machines.

Not very cutting edge…and Elvis is not impressed.

This is where the story gets interesting and where casual fans will probably learn something. The behind the scenes wheeling and dealing, the argument and the ultimatums that lead up to the ’68 Special are the film’s highlights, climaxing with Elvis’ riveting performance of If I Can Dream, a song written just hours before recording at the insistence of the programme’s producer and against Parker’s will.

If Elvis, the film had ended there, I’d be happy. But of course it doesn’t. Instead of touring the world, Presley is stranded in Vegas for five long years raking in big bucks to feed the Colonel’s gambling habit. The end finally comes in 1977 with The King alone on the throne (thankfully not depicted) betrayed or sold out by the men who should have been taking care of him…The Colonel, Dr. Nick and father Vernon.

Its ultimately a sad story and one that needs telling because it seems to happen over and over again…see Amy Winehouse.

To be fair, Elvis Presley was indeed the first rock star and he had no one to look to to give good advice on how to handle the fame, the wealth, the long hours and everything that goes with it. His parents had no clue, as is evident by Vernon’s face at the end of the film.

Elvis is a good film, not a great one. I can imagine wanting to see it again simply because there is so much to take in. And Austin Butler does an OK job of playing the King…he’s got the cheekbones, but not the sneer. The fat Elvis is mostly ignored as is the darker side of Presley…the affairs, the drugs are touched on but not made out to define the man. Instead he and Priscilla and little Lisa Marie are a loving family fighting insurmountable odds and a man who calls himself Colonel Tom Parker.

Marty Duda

Elvis opens in cinemas today. Click here for tickets and showtimes.