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MOVIES: Elvis - Review

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Colonel Tom Parker is dying. He’s lost his prize asset, Elvis Presley – and is scrambling alone through casino bars in Los Angeles. We see Hanks’ Parker act as the audience insight into the movie through a twisted, warped perspective of American capitalism – here, Parker is the phony, the conman, selling dreams that can’t be bought to Elvis, at the price of his freedom – manipulating the legendary performer’s status to his own will. This is the gauntlet through which we see Elvis’ life, and the tragedy that follows – brought to life by Baz Luhrmann, a man with a history of holding nothing back in terms of delivering spectacle on a grand stage, be it The Great Gatsby or Romeo and Juliet.

The film introduces us to Elvis Presley as we learn the origins of where he learnt his music, his influences and his aspirations. Comic books capture his favourite character: Captain Marvel Jr. He comes from a loving family, and all of this comes in the first thirty minutes or so as we see a myriad of collective montages, building up to when – a young Elvis sets foot on stage for the first time, with dyed black hair and a pink jumper. He’s jeered at by the crowd – but the audience is quickly won over. And in that moment; a star is born – not just Elvis, but also Austin Butler himself, who delivers a captivating performance that is sure to catapult him to stardom – having only played a bit-part role as a Manson family member in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and featuring in MTV's short-lived Terry Brooks series, The Shannara Chronicles previously, this feels like him reaching out to become leading man material and grabbing it with earnest, we all talk about Oscar movies and Oscar-winning performances too early in the race, but Elvis is simply that – there are no other words for it: an Oscar nominated performance, at the very least – in complete contrast to Hanks’ – who feels clumsy, stilted and awkward – you could argue that he is in complete control as the Colonel, but it comes across a bit too cartoonish, a bit too exaggerated – Butler is almost subdued in comparison. Yet if Hanks’ performance is not, his words are as convincing as they come - “We are the same, you and I – two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity,” the Colonel tells Elvis – and we buy it.

The visuals are a treat – a real feast for the eyes – cinematographer Mandy Walker makes you watch Elvis Presley transcend before our eyes as the film recreates key scenes – available on YouTube for a direct comparison, such as his comeback tour, perfectly – even interactions with the crowd are replicated. The magnetic stage presence that Elvis had is instantly captured, his mannerisms, his looks, his charm – but the film also goes deeper than that, exploring his personality and what his reactions were to the state of the nation as it progresses – we see Elvis, in The Wanderers-style, react to the times that are a changing around him: Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Sharon Tate, all tragic murders that shaped America. Hollywood has always been a part of his life: the film spends a significant amount of time with his movies, which got progressively worse as they developed – and the film uses that to feed the Colonel’s status as the ultimate capitalist ego – once they take Hollywood for everything that they have, he moves onto the next source of income – not wanting to take Elvis out overseas, he instead turns to the International Hotel – and locks him into a contract designed to keep him there. Suspicious Minds is repeated multiple times throughout the movie - and the song's meaning feels like a key explanation of the film's underlying message. When things are too dangerous to say, sing - Elvis is told, and he does just that.

Elvis feels like it pushes the boundaries of a montage to its limit – flashing lights are everywhere and it’s a dizzying rollercoaster ride that feels like a fairground exhibit, appropriately, the film early on features a key scene in a Hall of Mirrors, and in a way, feels oddly reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, which it would make an inspired double feature with for a long weekend – both movies explore the ugly side of unfiltered American ego, the men are the monsters – and Elvis' novel choice to keep the movie from the Colonel’s perspective provides a fascinating twist on the Elvis tale – but you’re never left believing anything different, and you’ll come out a hell of a lot more sympathetic to EP – as he’s referred to by those closest to him, after, as the film acknowledges his flaws as a human.

The script is the most traditional point of the film which almost makes it feel at odds with Luhrmann’s lavish, go-for-broke direction and proves that film is very much a visual medium. Whilst the script uses the blueprint of the parody Walk Hard: A Dewey Cox Story for an instruction manual rather than an example of what to avoid, Luhrmann’s direction takes plenty of creative swings. It captures Elvis’ personality at different stages of his career, and even has time for the sheer unconventional inclusion of a Doja Cat song in an Elvis Presley movie – only someone as fearless as Luhrmann could have pulled it off and he does so admirably, the needle drops work, every second of them – opposite the greatest hits of Elvis’ career, and it feels like a match made in heaven.

No actor to portray Elvis has quite come close to capturing why so many adored him in the first place: one of the most recent examples of that performance comes from Michael Shannon playing an older version of him in Elvis & Nixon, where he met with the then-President of the United States – but Austin Butler has the spark, his rebellious capturing of the youth movement in America is frequently tempered by Colonel Tom Parker’s need to make him feel as accessible to a wider audience as possible; we’re seeing constant back and forth between the two – the more Parker reigns in, the more Elvis lashes out – and what unfolds, is history. Parker is stuck in the past – he cannot see that the times are changing around him – despite claiming that it’s not his fault history changed with the advent of The Beatles, and the character study between the two becomes the driving force of this movie that gives it much of its momentum.

Rare has a music biopic been this assuredly confident with its understanding of its subject presented in a pop ballad for the ages - unafraid to change history where needed to suit the narrative – it’s a film that I’m already thinking about rewatching and is decidedly more Rocketman than Bohemian Rhapsody, which is only a good thing. More musical biopics like this, please and thank you.

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