Cannes review: Electrifying Elvis delivers the icon like never before
Can it be that we really don't know Elvis anymore — not as the seismic force that shook people and remade the popscape? Barring those who actually lived through it (a group to be envied), that's almost certainly the case. Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, a dazzling, splatter-paint evocation of the myth and the man, does a mighty job of bringing us closer to what that revolutionary moment must have felt like. It may not be slavishly devoted to the facts (this isn't your typical birth-to-deather), but as with Todd Haynes's glam fantasia Velvet Goldmine, the movie achieves something trickier and more valuable, mining shocking intimacy from sweeping cultural changes.
Luhrmann, an inspired stylist who somehow managed to freshen up The Great Gatsby, doesn't make us wait long for the first of these jolts. Before unleashing a glimpse of his Presley, we hear the voice emanating off a percolating debut single, "That's All Right," then we follow a shadowy figure taking the stage at a 1954 concert, the emphasis on mystery and discovery. By the time Austin Butler stares down the lens and melts it (his revelatory performance, fully lived-in and vulnerable, never plays like imitation), Luhrmann has hooked us by the strangeness of it all: the slicked hair, the androgynous makeup, the girls in the audience uncontrollably leaping to their feet.
Already we've seen Elvis' snoozy country-music competition (Kodi Smit-McPhee plays one of these casualties, almost a fan-fictional variation on his gangly creation from The Power of the Dog), and there's no contest. "It was the greatest carnival attraction I'd ever seen," murmurs narrating uber-manager-to-be Colonel Tom Parker (a stunty, half-successful Tom Hanks), and a thesis snaps into place, one that Luhrmann, himself an impresario, develops in a screenplay credited to him and three other contributing writers: This is story about salesmanship, onstage and off.
Elvis crystallizes as a media-minded showdown between Parker's product manager — he convinces the naïve Presley to commit exclusively on a Ferris wheel, if the circus metaphor wasn't clear enough — and an increasingly willful and visionary artist. Luhrmann's filmmaking style follows suit, beginning in a flurry of look-at-me zip pans and crotch zooms, Presley making his meteoric way up the marquee posters, then deepening into intense fourth-wall piercings as Butler's Elvis thirsts for authenticity. (The director's ear for jolting modern musical juxtapositions remains in full flower, with new contributions by Doja Cat, Shonka Dukureh and Gary Clark Jr., among others; Presley's own classics are creatively remixed, covered, and sometimes even modulated into minor keys.)
Not a perfect lookalike (and that's fine), Butler does extremely well by the music and stage moves, but he's even more compelling during Presley's post-Army Hollywood years, presented as dissatisfied ones. Elvis has an extended centerpiece that you can't quite believe arrives in a major studio movie: a behind-the-scenes exfoliation of Presley's landmark 1968 TV comeback special, during which Parker's dreams of wholesome Christmas entertainment collide with an increasingly politicized singer, shaken by the recent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ("He's not even wearing the sweater!" a panicky executive barks in the control room, confronted by Butler's leather-clad, gospel-belting Presley.)
As fun as Elvis often is, it scores some remarkably sharp points, particularly regarding Presley's unfaked love of Black musicians, and the appropriations that fueled his crossover success. Of the many biopics to enshrine the King (and Elvis eclipses them all), none has featured a triple split-screen montage charting the performance of a single song back to its blues-shack roots. (Even the serious Presley documentaries don't cement the point as clearly as Luhrmann does.) "Too many people are making too much money to put you in jail," a shrewd B.B. King (Waves' Kelvin Harrison Jr.) tells Presley at one of his low points; the line is scalding.
For a filmmaker sometimes criticized for skimming the surface, Luhrmann uses the material to go as deep as he does wide. Sometimes Elvis feels like a lost Oliver Stone film from his daring 1990s heyday: a big-canvas exploration of debauched American appetites. Fittingly, the Las Vegas years slacken a bit, televisions getting bulleted and pills chased. Still, Luhrmann makes room for Nixonian paranoia, especially in one hushed conversation with estranged wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). "I never made a classic film I could be proud of," Elvis, a James Dean fan, tells her. Fans of Blue Hawaii will wince, but something equally rare has come to pass — a portrait of a serious man trapped in an unserious life. Grade: A–
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in this musical biopic about the life of Elvis Presley, specifically his relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker.