I consider myself an Elvis Presley fan. There might be 75 bands or singers I like more, but in the early ‘90s I spent $895 to buy an autographed Elvis album. The record was the horrid soundtrack to Fun in Acapulco, but I bought it for the signature. Years later, someone was selling a shirt he wore in that movie at an auction, and I bought that. I had always planned to frame them together but never got around to it.
I have 3 or 4 Elvis CDs (the best are “The Sun Sessions” which I can’t recommend enough). I know the name of the best Elvis impersonator in the L.A. area (James Kruk, who you should see in concert if you get the chance).
So with all that, you’d think I’d be excited by this movie. I was not. As a kid, I saw Kurt Russell play the King and he was amazing. And I had the same problem I have with other biopics. I already know all the stories they’re going to tackle. Top that off with the fact that I’m not a big fan of writer/director Baz Luhrmann. His film Australia was awful. I didn’t care for his Romeo & Juliet. I never saw Moulin Rouge (but my wife tells me it's fun). And his version of The Great Gatsby wasn’t so great; yet I did love how he did the music scenes, adding electro/EDM beats to the jazz songs gave the party scenes a nice pulse of wildness. I’m not so sure the way he mixes rap and other contemporary artists with the Elvis tunes in this movie always worked, but I loved hearing Jack White’s guitar, and the Elvis songs he picked to use were perfect. I think the problem Luhrmann has is not capturing the soul of humans – the many layers and issues, so they’re not just one-dimensional characters. Using a bit of nuance isn’t something he’s capable of doing.
The story is told through the machiavellian manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). That would have been a good way to play this story, except for two things. Hanks looks ridiculous in all the prosthetics. And he’s doing this weird accent that is the dumbest sounding thing imaginable. It reminded me of Adam Sandler doing one of his goofy characters in a Saturday Night Live skit.
During Colonel Tom’s narration, he states that it “doesn’t matter if you do 10 stupid things, as long as you do one smart one.”
Luckily, Luhrmann did about five smart ones with this film.
One of the bad things was avoiding the more controversial aspects of Presley’s life. Perhaps when you’re getting permission from the Elvis estate, you portray Elvis’s meeting with Priscilla as a cute moment, instead of reminding folks that she was 14 and he was 24. And you don’t show his drug and pill use as heavy as it probably was. In fact, when he first takes an upper, it felt like it was right out of the Walk Hard/Dewey Cox parody rock biopic Judd Apatow gave us.
Another one of the 5 things Luhrmann did that was stupid, was putting eye shadow on Presley. This isn’t Alice Cooper or T. Rex.
Initially, I didn’t care for the casting of Austin Butler because he doesn’t look much like Elvis. But just as Anthony Hopkins didn’t look like Richard Nixon in the Oliver Stone movie…once you’re a few minutes into it, the performances in both films worked. (side note: I didn’t use the Nixon movie as an example because of that famous photo of Elvis with Nixon at the White House).
Early on when Butler sings (If You’re Looking For) Trouble, and Baby, Let’s Play House – and you see the women in the crowd in a frenzy – it perfectly captured what was happening at those Elvis concerts. And any time Butler is on stage, he knocks it out of the park.
As much as I loved how they captured the early Elvis shows, I thought the old/fat Elvis would delve into satire. Yet when you see him first putting together his Las Vegas show, with the Strauss intro of Sprach Zarathustra (that’s the 2001: A Space Odyssey song for those that don’t know)...and showing the drummer how he wanted the beat to go, and insisting on the gospel background singers…it was a blast.
I was a bit disappointed with the ‘68 Comeback Special scenes, although it was one of the rare moments they told me stuff I never knew about how that even came to be.
When Colonel Tom first sinks his teeth into the young singer, and they’re wandering around a carnival, it was rather evocative imagery. It made me think of last year’s terrific Nightmare Alley.
Everyone is praising Butler’s performance, as they should. I also loved seeing Kodi Smit-McPhee (who should have won an Oscar for the Power of the Dog) as Jimmy Rogers. Kelvin Harrison Jr., one of my favorite young actors, played B.B. King (unfortunately we didn’t get to hear him sing, although he does Sam Cooke songs very well in The High Note from a few years ago).
One of my favorite current musicians is Gary Clark Jr., and he plays Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (doing his song “That’s All Right”). Alton Mason, a male model, was incredible performing as Little Richard.
Yola plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and is a stand-out.
Australian actor Luke Bracey plays Presley’s bassist Jerry Scheff, who I only mention because he was also on the last few Doors albums (and they’re my favorite band), and his son Jason is a San Diegan who ended up playing bass and singing for Chicago [that’s not the only San Diego connection; at one point Priscilla tries talking Elvis into going to a rehab place in San Diego].
And one of the few Elvis songs that I prefer the original version over the King’s – Big Mama Thornton doing “Hound Dog” (played wonderfully by Shonka Dukeren).
We see Fats Domino quickly, but unfortunately, he never gets to tickle the ivories.
Since all the musical moments of the film were incredible, it made me so much more disappointed with a lot of the other things. The superhero stuff was corny, although I liked seeing a childhood Elvis having a lightning bolt for his superhero character, which would later be incorporated into his silly “Taking Care of Business” logo.
I thought they sugarcoated many things, and a lot of the film was rather shallow. It also gets rather repetitive, and at 2 ½ hours, that shouldn’t be the case.
I’ll give it 2 ½ stars out of 5, one for each hour of the movie. I don’t think anyone that goes to see it will be bored.
Side note: no sideburns were injured in the filming of this movie.