The King of visually spectacular biopics! Tom Hanks and Austin Butler deliver command performances that transcend impersonations and transform them into The Colonel and The King. You’ll want to sing along with this dazzling tribute to the King of Rock ‘n Roll from visionary director Baz Luhrmann. A landmark biographical motion picture for both the technical achievement and performative elements of the mise-en-scene; however, the screenwriting (inclusive of plotting and narrative) lacks the gravitas of the visual elements. Needless to say, my initial reaction to the film was higher than it is now that I’ve had some time to think on it. That’s not to say that I wasn’t impressed by it–I was! Parts of it, anyway. The more I thought about the screenwriting, the more frustrated I became with the film. Frustrated in that it felt like a hybrid biographical film meets documentary. Furthermore, the full impact of the story is hampered by the poor pacing. Perhaps Elvis would have made for a better limited run HBO series. Of course, then you’d not likely have Luhrmann at the helm, which is ultimately why this film works as well as it does. From his humble beginnings to Graceland and Vegas, the film includes milestones in Elvis’ legendary career. The influence of rhythm and blues and gospel music on Elvis’ life is witnessed throughout the filmWhile the storytelling may be weak, the sensory explosion of the film coupled with the performances are the reasons to watch this on the big screen.
Elvis Presley rises to fame in the 1950s while maintaining a complex relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
What performances! Both Butler and Hanks are sure to wow you with their portrayal of The King and the Colonel. We could definitely see some Best Makeup Oscar nominations for both, especially for the Colonel. Other than when it was established that Elvis put on a significant amount of weight (but we cut back to Butler’s slender Elvis), he completely embodied the legendary entertainer. From his voice to his signature pelvic moves, everything about Butler screamed that he was truly Elvis. With so many impersonators out there, and some very good ones, it’s difficult for an actor to take on an iconic role such as this, and elevate it from impersonation to transformation. Fortunately for Elvis, Butler transformed with great authenticity. Moreover, Hank’s unbelievable transformation as the Colonel is on par with the Oscar award-winning hair and makeup of Jessica Chastain’s Tammy Faye last year in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Although Butler certainly has the moves to drive you wild, it’s really Hanks’ story. Oh you get lots of Elvis, but the main action plot is really told from the perspective of The Colonel. Which is why there are narrative problems.
The movie opens and ends with The Colonel, with all the Elvis in the middle. Because of the competing plotlines, the movie suffers from poor pacing and clearly misguided diegetic direction. Audiences are never able to go as deep as they would like because as soon as we begin to focus on one element of Elvis’ or The Colonel’s life, we are then thrust into a different chapter in Elvis’ life. While that may seem like the movie to too quickly paced, it actually has the opposite effect by dragging it down. Stays too long in some places, whilst not enough in other places. BioPics like this often suffer from poor plotting, because they are ultimately a visualization of a Wikipedia page. Lots of information and chronological events, but little time and room to become emotionally involved with the characters. If this movie had not been about Elvis, and was just another tragic story of an entertainer from humble beginning, hitting it big, losing themselves, just to have a major comeback before an untimely death, then I would probably not care about these characters as much as I do. I am invested in them because of who they are, not because of the journey I witnessed in the film.
The technical achievement of the film is off the charts good! The stylistic cinematography and editing choices are Luhrmann’s signature style. It’s an experiment of the apparatus of film, and how it can be manipulated and crafted to take a typical BioPic, and transform it into a cinematic experience. And that’s what Elvis is, an experience! It is a brilliant combination of stagecraft and cinema. Yes, some of the sets look like they are on a stage, but that adds to the dimension and character of the film. It gives it this other worldly feel that wouldn’t be achieved simply by using all real places (as many still exist). Several times during the film, the cinematography and editing made me feel like I was literally at an Elvis concert! A sensory explosion that only Luhrmann could dream up. The down side to this approach is that there is so much emphasis on the visual elements and the technical achievement of the film that the actually storytelling suffers….sometimes feels like a bad television limited run series.
While I have my reservations with the screenwriting, there is no doubt in my mind how much fun I had with this film! Whether you’re a lifelong fan of Elvis or not, you will have a wonderful time!
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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