Share on social media
Find More Watercooler Picks
A sweeping biopic that manages to capture Elvis Presley’s rise from a shy kid from Memphis to a rock ‘n’ roll icon in Las Vegas to his wild, unprecedented popularity around the world.
Tom Hanks and director and writer Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby) are the big draws here, but you’ll be hearing more about Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), who plays Elvis. Rounding out the ensemble are Kodi Smit-McPhee (Power of the Dog), Helen Thomson (Top of the Lake), Richard Roxburgh (Hacksaw Ridge), Olivia DeJonge (The Visit), and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves).
Even if you, like me, aren’t the biggest fan of Baz Luhrmann films, it’s hard to deny that this film is really good. The performances by Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as his manager Colonel Tom Parker, combined with the fast-paced story and spectacular visuals, make the film much more than a biopic; they make it an experience.
Going in, I didn’t know much about Elvis, but that’s not necessary to enjoy it. In the title role Butler seems to capture his essence. His voice sounds authentic and his moves on stage are fluid. Past performances of Elvis on screen have always seemed overdone to me, but Austin holds your attention with his charm and confidence, embodying the character from shy aspiring musician to the icon he became. I had a blast watching Elvis drive his female audiences wild as they become mesmerized by his taboo thrusts and hip shakes. Watching Elvis evolve, assimilate, and then decline as the world around him changes is fascinating, as is his longing to stay in the spotlight throughout his larger-than-life career.
Luhrmann does a great job placing the audience in the crowd and on stage with Elvis. He tells the story in his characteristic style with cool effects like smash cuts, montages, animation, and more. Yet he also integrates historical figures and events into the story. I especially appreciate the reminder of how influential Black artists and churches were on Elvis. Major kudos to the production design team too, particularly costumes and sets. They make sure the audience is authentically time-traveled to the ’60s and ’70s.
What makes the film a fresh take on a biopic is that it’s told from Colonel Parker’s point of view, featuring narration from his perspective. Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Parker is so good that he actually makes you dislike him. Tom Hanks! Never in my life would I imagine being angry with him, but I found myself having a pure disdain for this character, whose actions and motives are authentically menacing. There’s good chemistry between Hanks and Butler, as they take Elvis and Parker from a close father-son relationship to something much more toxic.
There’s a surprising amount of humor in the film. It’s not forced or corny, just funny in a way that adds personality. But it’s not all music and laughs; there are some low points from Elvis’ life too. To see how his life ended up after the sacrifices he made and the history-making level of success he achieved is heart-breaking. But even up to the very end, Elvis is sure to entertain you.
You don’t have to be an Elvis fan or know much about him to enjoy this film. It could be easily enjoyed as a story about a musician’s unlikely journey to international stardom and his dysfunctional relationship with his father figure manager. A round of applause to Austin Butler and Tom Hanks for their captivating performances.
This one has cross-generational appeal, as it will get the older generations talking about their memories of the man or that of their parents. See it together in a theater, if you can.
Austin Butler’s voice was used for the singing parts of the film. He was discovered from his stand-out role opposite Denzel Washington in The Iceman Cometh on Broadway. Denzel called Baz and told him that Butler had a work ethic like no one else he had seen before.