I don’t think I have seen any of Baz Luhrmann’s films. The trailers always seem to be style over substance. I was going to ignore this film too. Not because I don’t think Elvis is a good source for a film, but because I was concerned Luhrmann would create a film without substance wasting the opportunity. However, several positive reviews convinced me to give the film a try. So was it style over substance?

Tom Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, as an unreliable narrator. Close to death, the Colonel is reflecting in a fevered dream on his relationship with Elvis. Justifying his decisions and presenting himself as the person who made Elvis. This allows Luhrmann the freedom to play fast and loose with the facts. It also sadly means most characters don’t have to have any depth, Tom is only remembering his version of Elvis and no one else matters to his story. 

Sadly, Elvis’s early life and early recording career at Sun Records is brushed over very quickly. The story picks up after the Colonel sees Elvis and puts him on a tour with Country star Hank Snow and the travelling carnival that follow him. As with most of the film. I have no idea if this is true. Yes, Elvis toured with Hank. But the carnival seems to be used to set the scene on how the Colonel views everyone as an exploitable opportunity. 

I was disappointed they took the decision to omit Elvis’s early recording career. We all know about the Vegas years and the comeback special. I wanted to see Elvis’s early life. How did Elvis become Elvis? Instead, Elvis is almost fully formed at the beginning of the film and doesn’t develop significantly as an artist through the rest of the film.

The key to any music film is to create convincing performances. Taking on Elvis is an unenviable task. Elvis is such a recognisable performer. We are all familiar with the various live recordings and also his feature film output. With so many Elvis impersonators, finding a balance between creating a realistic portrayal of Elvis and becoming yet another impersonator is a difficult task.

Austin Butler plays Elvis and has received a lot of plaudits. I have to admit he does a decent, but not quite convincing job. The way the story is told, leaves Luhrmann’s Elvis without much depth. You never really get to know Elvis. Austin does the best with what he has. But he is given slim pickings. For example, his relationship with his mother and Pricilla are explored in a perfunctory way. At times Elvis just comes across as a teenager with tantrums. With so much of the film focused on the relationship between Elvia and the Colonel, Most other characters are in the background barely interacting with Elvis. So this Elvis comes across as humourless and at times he is all a bit emo.

But for me it is the way Luhrmann has handled the live performances that means Austin’s performance doesn’t quite work. While he did a great job with the physical side of performance and he a good job singing the songs. The live performance didn’t appear to have be captured as a live performance, with vocals overdubbed in the studio. At times it looked like he was miming and the music had none of the dynamics of a real live performance, sounding like a clean studio recording. 

The film does a good job of creating a sympathetic Elvis character. You never feel he ever has any control over his own destiny. Every time there is a chance of him escaping his cage. He is manipulate by the Machiavellian Colonel. Hanks, as always, does a great job. Playing the Colonel as somebody who revels in his own schemes and like any snake oil salesman, uses charm and Elvis’s own dreams to keep control. By the end of the film you are left in no doubt that the Colonel abused his relationship with Elvis and that Elvis’s death was inevitable. But it also robs Elvis of much of his own agency. His bad decisions all caused by the Colonel.

By the end of the film. I never felt I really learnt anything new about Elvis and was left feeling like this was a wasted opportunity. I had hoped that this might have had the grit of ‘Walk The Line’ or the humour of ‘Rocketman’. Instead, it managed to sit somewhere in the middle and sadly it did not reach the heights of either film.