Elvis is the presentation of the culmination of all of Baz Luhrmann’s work. Only Luhrmann can take the life of one of the greatest musical figures in history, and transform it into a feast for the eyes. The rich way in which the Australian director takes everyday moments and scenes in life, and presents them as pieces of a puzzle that create the ultimate foundation for a true story to be told, is a feat in of itself. One captivating aspect of the film is the use of the music to propel the story onwards. Throughout the film the music is a force that drives us forward, adding to the story both in the meaning of the lyrics, but also the beats and momentum within the sound working in hand with the visuals presented. The implementation of this technique and imagery throughout the film harks back to Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and The Great Gatsby (2013). A musical beat, the content chosen, the camera angle presented, all working in simpatico to give us that feeling of cool smooth action.
Throughout the film, we’re treated to a number of scenes that bring to life the enigmatic nature of not only Presley’s music, but of those that surrounded him. Shonka Dukureh shines in the role of Big Mama Thornton, before Alton Mason almost steals the show with his superb performance as Little Richard. But it’s the moments where we meet Butler on stage that create breathtaking scenes. From his controversial hip-shaking movements on stage that landed him in the back seat of a cop car, to an emotional capture of the musicians performance of If I Can Dream at the end of his 1968 comeback special, the film breathes new life not only into Elvis’ music, but the impact and influence his ability as a performer still has on music today.
Elvis Presley is the personification of a showman, reinventing himself and ultimately knowing what the audience wants. The film displays this brilliantly, whilst respecting the story, the man and the music. Luhrmann has always presented flawless soundtracks that capture the ability to understand the present cultural climate within entertainment. He’s taken that idea, nurtured it, and clearly portrayed it on screen. We spoke to producer Schuyler Weiss at the Sydney premiere of Elvis, who discussed the way in which Luhrmann takes on this challenge. The directors ability to honour the community in which Elvis grew up in, is another facet of the film that elevates it beyond your general biopic. We’re given insight into Elvis’ own musical influences, his draw to gospel and African American artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton to name a few, ultimately presenting audiences with insight into not just his own history, but that of the cultural state of America at the time. As seen when Elvis speaks out and sings the protest song If I Can Dream, Presley broke the barriers of what was accepted then, having been exposed to a greater view of American life.
Luhrmann has also achieved something great in his casting of Austin Butler as Elvis. The American actor completely transforms into Elvis Presley. The mannerisms, the movement, the voice, everything incredibly reminiscent of The King himself. As Elvis in the early days of his career, Butler captures his unique quality perfectly. One standout scene arrives in the form of Butler’s performance of Trouble, which features vocals from the actor. As a viewer, you can see the soul of the track erupt within Butler’s performance, once again proving that music can assist an actor in embodying their role and the story they’re telling. When playing the renowned musician in the later stage of his life, there are moments where you couldn’t help but think you were watching authentic archival footage of Presley. Butler completely embodies the musical icon.
Having grown up with the complete fortune in knowing about the musician and his story, Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker is a familiar figure. Choosing to have Parker as the narrator of this film is an interesting choice. As someone who is familiar with the history I would love to learn more about this decision. Much like the ending of the film, I’d love to learn more about that choice. The application of the carnival theme threaded throughout the film was a compelling choice, adding a psychological dimension and meaning that elevated it. One particular scene that screamed of foreshadowing was early on at the carnival, where we find Elvis standing in the foreground in focus, before the focus shifts to the background where we see the words “The Geek”. In this respect we come to realise this idea is represented between Elvis The Showman and Parker The Snowman, Parker manipulating Presley.
Other parts within the film which made an impact included the insight into the crew at Sun Studios, who discovered Presley. Kate Mulvaney playing Marion Keisker also shines as a pivotal character in the making of Elvis as a performer, providing further insight into music at the time and Presley’s history. The pivotal ladies in Presley’s life that of his Mother Gladys Presley, portrayed by Helen Thomson who creates such a powerful connection between the two characters of Gladys and Elvis. That’s another part of what makes the first part of the film so dynamic. The scene where tensions are running high, mother and son interacting, the way Thomson moves through the scene takes your breath away.
It’s evident that Butler fully enveloped himself into the world of Elvis. With a trove of archival imagery and footage available for dissection, the actor was able to perfectly replicate Presley’s striking mannerisms, especially in the portrayal of his movement and voice. Of course, the films costuming and hair and make-up departments struck gold with their ability to perfectly bring to life the era and Elvis’ emblematic fashion.Catherine Martin brings that finesse and splendour to each look, making each and every character pop. It is clearly taken from history, but the designer enhanced the looks to shine on our glorious cinema screens. Elvis is another film you could gladly watch on repeat. Similarly, the soundtrack is one that will join my illustrious collection of soundtrack gold. The film perfectly captures the story of Elvis, utilising his own archive to thrust the story forward in a work of genius.