When the members of Spinal Tap congregate around Elvis Presley’s grave for an impromptu (and disastrous) a capella of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in This Is Spinal Tap, it gives way to a sudden cloudburst of melancholy for the band. ‘It really puts perspective on things, doesn’t it?’ notes guitarist Nigel Tufnell, gazing down at the headstone. ‘Too much,’ shoots back lead singer Dave St Hubbins. ‘There’s too much fucking perspective.’
One thing Baz Luhrmann’s furiously entertaining, mile-a-minute Elvis biopic doesn’t do is overload you with too much perspective. From its timeframe-leaping opening to the tragic but ultimately celebratory ending, it never tries to do too much – to dig distractedly into every aspect of his life – and instead immerses you in a musical origin story that pays much-needed tribute to the Black roots of his songs. Most of all, Luhrmann’s screenplay (co-written with Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner, and Romeo + Juliet’s Craig Pearce) zeroes in on Elvis’s relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker; initially a mutually beneficial deal that slowly curdles into something exploitative, gaslighting and borderline criminal.
Elvis is played by a frankly astonishing Austin Butler, last seen alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Here, he does what Leo did in another Luhrmann film, Romeo + Juliet, and delivers a show-stopper of a performance. When Butler shakes his hips in Presley’s first gig as a full-blown rock ‘n’ roller, it’s like watching two stars being born. Women in the audience scream, almost involuntarily. Butler sells every moment, nails the accent and smartly charts the singer’s evolving physicality over two decades on stage.
Surprisingly, the weaker link here is Tom Hanks’s Parker. Boasting an Edna Mode accent and rubber jowls, he struggles to keep his cunning, gambling-addicted impresario from cartoonishness. If the film really needed a straight-up villain, Hanks feels like a strange pick.
The movie’s overall treatise – that the one-time carnival barker saw his star as a glorified circus attraction – isn’t always subtly expressed (one shot sticks Elvis in the frame next to a sign for a circus geek), but it’s undeniably effective. The screenplay positions Parker as the unreliable narrator, looking back over Elvis’s life to offer a self-serving version of events.
The Elvis depicted here always declares his sources. Whether the real one did will remain divisive
Luhrmann shakes his own cinematic hips to great effect here, too. Just when his hyper-stylised, theatrical vision was starting to feel played out in the clunky The Great Gatsby, he delivers his best film for 20 years. Every trick and technique here, from ingenious match cuts, to split screens and even comic-book cells, works to soup up the storytelling. Even the hip-hop on the soundtrack makes sense this time as a reminder of Elvis’s roots in Black music.
And as the end credits superfluously point out, Elvis has been a colossal influence on pop culture. Public Enemy – and plenty of others – may disagree, but Luhrmann’s movie does strive to centre those influences in the narrative too. Memphis’s blues clubs and the music-filled Christian revival gatherings are the inspirations, and Black musicians like BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Little Richard (Alton Mason) and Big Boy Crudup (Gary Clark Jr) are his heroes and spirit guides. The Elvis depicted here always declares his sources. Whether the real one did will remain a point of contention for a long time to come.
Elvis premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s out worldwide Jun 24.