At their best, biopics can be like Spencer, focusing on a single part of the subject’s life to convey a particular idea, and at their worst, they can be like Bohemian Rhapsody, too wide-spanning and zoomed out to communicate any coherent ideas. Elvis falls firmly into the latter category.
There are lots of different ideas that are ready to be explored and interrogated when taking a bird’s eye view of the life of The King Of Rock And Roll, Elvis Presley — advocacy, civil rights, excess, money, fame, love, drugs, race, and moral panic are all brought up throughout the film, but none of them are given the time of day where the movie can have anything meaningful to say about them. Elvis leans into every single thing that repeatedly makes biopics unsuccessful. Instead of telling any kind of coherent story, it instead jumps from moment to moment in Elvis’ life, without as much as a hint to the audience of the context.
This is a movie that’s made for fans of Elvis, and not really much else. It feigns earnest motivations, but by the end, as someone whose Elvis knowledge has never exceeded the knowledge that he’s The King Of Rock And Roll, I was thoroughly underwhelmed, and frankly, exhausted. The two hour and 40 minute runtime does nothing but make this a slog, instead of a tightly paced, inoffensive tribute to The King. Scenes go on much longer than they have any need to — there’s often no mood, atmosphere, idea, or emotion being fostered. Just things happening on a screen.
It’s a real shame to waste Austin Butler’s lead performance as Elvis in such a dud of a movie. You don’t often see an actor perfectly toe the line between elevated impersonation and genuine emotional performance, but Butler does it. He doesn’t only swinging his hips, singing, and oozing charisma just as Elvis himself would, but he brings such an amount of pathos to the moments behind closed doors. It’s quite refreshing to get this type of performance in such a stilted and formulaic genre.
But Butler’s performance is contrasted with an uncharacteristically nearly insufferable Tom Hanks. As it’s the second time one of Hanks’ characters had a major influence on Elvis’ rise, you’ll find yourself wishing you were watching Forrest Gump instead of Elvis when Hanks is on screen. Part of it has to do with the fact that his character is basically evil incarnate, but Hanks pushes the performance so far over the top that it simply becomes grating, unbelievable, and too silly to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. He’s one of our acting treasures; he’s allowed to have a misfire every once in a while.
The biggest flub regarding Hanks’ character, Colonel Tom Parker, is that he’s the top billed actor, and therefore, the story is told through his eyes. In what comes closest to an actual thematic through line, director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann uses this to display the personal corrosiveness of fame and success in America, but the glitz, glam, and unfocused nature of the rest of the film takes away from the story. And the moments that are uniquely through Elvis’ eyes create a confusing perspective — the movie pays lip service to how Elvis was complicit in and responsible for so much of what happened when he became an icon, but through the actions we see and the scenes we’re shown, it’s difficult to believe the movie is blaming anyone but the Colonel.
That Elvis is unfocused is what ultimately brings it down. It will play well for the nostalgic types, who either grew up when Elvis was alive and popular, or who grew up listening to his music otherwise, but for those with no connection to the titular icon, there’s next to nothing to grab onto, besides the charismatic lead performance.