Elvis” isn’t your ordinary biopic.
The new film about rock ’n’ roll icon Elvis Presley — told through the lens of his two-decade-plus partnership with his increasingly duplicitous manager, Colonel Tom Parker — is an elaborate web of complex shots, outside-the-box editing and exquisitely executed music integration.
And you wonder why we don’t get movies from Baz Luhrmann more often?
“Elvis” — directed and co-written by the Australian filmmaker whose last big-screen work was 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” — is such a feast for the eyes and ears that, for a while, it can feel like an example of style over substance. However, the film finds its storytelling legs as it proceeds and presents a relatively interesting portrayal of a man who changed music.
The cast and crew is packed with Aussie talent, but the job of portraying Elvis goes to little-known American actor Austin Butler — who made an impression as Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in 2019 — and his passionate performance and good-enough singing is another reason the film succeeds.
The much bigger name in the cast is Tom Hanks, employing an accent as the so-called “colonel” that, unfortunately, never gets any easier on the ears over the movie’s beefy running time.
“I’m the man who gave the world Elvis Presley,” Hanks’ unreliable narrator tells us in the film’s opening moments. “Without me, there wouldn’t be an Elvis Presley. And yet there are some who make me out to be the villain of this here story.”
Well, he’s certainly the villain of Luhrmann’s story, but discover Elvis he does. While working as a carnival promoter in the South, Parker hears the young man on the radio and remarks to those around him that despite the singer’s obvious talent, he’ll never make it big because he’s Black.
“That’s the thing,” Parker is told. “He’s white.”
When he first sees Elvis perform, Parker can’t believe “how strange he looked,” and a man in the audience yells, “Get a haircut, fairy!”
However, Parker notices something else, something the ladies are seeing: “the wiggle.”
He watches how Elvis’ hip movement consumes the young women watching him, Parker locking in on one who, he says, sees “forbidden fruit” in the guitar-wielding man behind the microphone.
“She could have eaten him alive,” he says. “It was the greatest carnival attraction I’d ever seen. He was my destiny — right under my nose in Memphis.”
Parker gets his claws into the future rock giant, laying out that while Elvis will be the “Showman,” he will be the “Snowman,” the behind-the-scenes devil in the details who will make sure they always come out ahead in their business dealings.
But, over the course of “Elvis” — which almost could be called “Tom,” considering how large a role Parker plays in the story — we will see he is more than willing to pull a snow job on his own meal ticket.
The story isn’t just Presley and Parker, “Elvis” hitting the requisite beats of the familiar story, including the importance of the singer’s relationship with his mother, Gladys (Elen Thompson, “Top of the Lake: China Girl”), and his falling for future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge, “The Staircase”) — a danger Parker doesn’t see coming.
The movie also is concerned, naturally, with Presley’s ups and downs in the music industry, including his scrapes with the law over his stage antics and the public losing interest around the time some guys from Liverpool, England, become all the rage.
“Is it my fault the world changed?” Parker asks us.
“Elvis” introduces us to fictionalized versions of other musical figures, some portrayed by talented performers of today, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) and Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.), and the film is at its best when music is at the forefront.
Along with its striking visuals, “Elvis” gets its contemporary flare from elements such as Doja Cat’s original song “Vegas.”
More important, of course, is the incorporation of Presley’s music, and Luhrmann’s choice to use Butler’s versions of some of the early music along with actual Presley recordings of later-era tunes, along with a blend here and there, proves to be effective. Prepare to tap some toes.
“Elvis” — credited to three writers, along with Luhrmann — is told almost entirely linearly, so the good times give way to the sadder later years of Presley’s career and life, and so it’s understandably less fun as it builds to its conclusion. Ultimately, this is a portrait of a tragic figure.
It doesn’t help that Hanks simply is not compelling as Parker. As fun as the idea of the star of such films as “Big,” “Forrest Gump” and “Apollo 13” playing a villain sounds, it’s all disappointingly cartoonish.
Butler, on the other hand, ranges from good to great, bringing the necessary fire to the titular figure and crushing it when he’s on stage, singing hits such as “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The microcosm of “Elvis” comes later, when Elvis sings “Suspicious Minds” at a Las Vegas hotel as Parker works, against the singer’s wishes, to make the residency something close to permanent.
The terrifically composed sequence is one of the movie’s myriad reminders that when the director of memorable films including “Romeo + Juliet” (1996) and “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) does give us something, it’s more than likely going to be a gift.
Nothing about “Elvis” — filmed entirely in Australia — suggests a film that could have been quickly made, and that’s not taking into consideration the years of research into Presley and Parker done by the filmmaker.
So we get it, but maybe don’t stay away so long this time, Mr. Luhrmann. Don’t be cruel.
Mezoros writes for the Tribune News Service
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking)
Running time: 2:39
How to watch: In theaters Friday