Updated: Oct 4, 2022
We seem to be in an age of musical biopics lately. I think the trend could be considered to have started all the way back in 2018 when Bohemian Rhapsody came out and was a smash hit at the box office while also being a big award winner at the Academy Awards. True it wasn't that well-received critically with some either loving it or hating it, but Queen fans such as myself loved the movie at least and since then, we've gone on to have other biopics based on popular singers like 2019's Rocketman movie about Elton John, 2021's Respect movie about Aretha Franklin and there's even talks about biopics based on singers like David Bowie, Whitney Houston and more in the coming years. So it really isn't surprising in the slightest that following on from this trend, we have an Elvis Presley biopic. I mean come on, it was inevitable one was going to happen guys! It'd be shocking if we DIDN'T get an Elvis Presley movie anytime soon!
Naturally, when the trailers were released for this movie, I was hooked from the start. If you're curious to know, I LOVE Elvis Presley! I wouldn't call myself a die-hard fan of the guy because even I can acknowledge there are WAY bigger fans than me out there, but I'm a guy who grew up listening to his music whenever me and my family went for a ride in the car. My parents are huge Elvis fans too and it's through them I picked up a love for Elvis music, and possibly Lilo & Stitch too. My favourite Elvis songs include "Suspicious Minds", "The Wonder of You" "In the Ghetto", "I'm All Shook Up", "A Little Less Conversation", "Vivia Las Vegas" and "Hound Dog". Needless to say, I have a long history of loving Elvis music so how could I say no to watching a movie about him? I was especially curious when I heard that Baz Luhrmann was revealed to be directing this. Given the guy's experience in making musical movies such as Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, it seemed he was the right guy to be directing the movie. Then it came out to critical acclaim and was so good that even Elvis's ex-wife, daughter and granddaughter were all singing their praises of the film! If Elvis's family love it, then it's got to be worth a shot, right?
So does this movie give us the wonder of Elvis? Or should we view this movie through our suspicious minds? Let's shake our hips and rock n' roll as we dive into Elvis...
Section 1: The Story
As this is a biopic based on the life of Elvis Presley, the story is one of those that's based on a true story with some artistic licensing here and there for the sake of drama. The movie sees a young uprising superstar named (who else) Elvis Presley who catches the eye of an opportunistic businessman named Colonel Tom Parker. Tom takes Elvis under his wing and shoots him to superstardom. But anyone that knows the story of Elvis will know that it doesn't end well...
I'm just going to throw an important disclaimer here: I am NOT in any way an expert on the life of Elvis Presley, nor do I pretend to be. So don't ask me how accurate this movie is to history, I have no idea. A quick look on the film's TVTropes page suggests it doesn't change too many facts and is mostly true to life with a few things changed to make the movie more dramatic (Elvis never actually fired Tom publicly on stage like he does in the movie and Tom doesn't suffer a fall like he does at the beginning, he suffered a stroke and was found slumped in a chair). But I'm not going to speak for the experts here. If you want to know how true-to-life this movie is, I can't help you there and can only suggest to do your own research on the matter.
Much like I did with movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, this review will be coming from my viewing the movie as a movie and not a documentary based on Elvis's life. So how is it as a movie? Well it's quite a show as one would expect from an Elvis Presley movie.
First of all, the movie covers a lot of aspects of Elvis's life and even taught me things I never knew about the man until now, thus making this biopic potentially educational as a good biopic should be. We learn about Elvis's inspiration to get into music, his rather unusual upbringing as a white man growing up in a mostly black neighbourhood in Memphis, Tennessee, his favourite superhero and what he means to him, his early years and controversial dancing style that landed him in trouble with segregation laws at the time, his movie career and so much more. If you're looking for an Elvis movie, it leaves no stone unturned and shows you a lot of his life that you may find interesting to watch. The film itself is told through a framing device in the form of Colonel Tom Parker who is pretty much narrating the movie to us, yet it's still very clearly a movie about Elvis as he's the main focus of the movie and we get to see him away from Tom Parker so he's not always hogging the spotlight from the titular rock star.
I also like how the movie takes its time to humanize Elvis and show us what he was like in his personal life, iffy pacing notwithstanding but we'll get to that later. When you have a movie based on a real person's life, you can't just have them feel like movie characters, they have to feel like people and they do a good job on that with Elvis. We see he was a young man with big ambitions but was very attached to his family, especially his mother, and was driven to do whatever he could to prevent them from falling into poverty and also to prevent anyone going through what his dad went through when he was sent to prison in his youth. I imagine that many people might find some common ground with Elvis in this movie, especially if they're as driven to provide for their families as he was.
And given this is a movie based on a singer, naturally there's a lot of musical moments to give us one heck of a show. I'll detail more of this in the cinematography but the most I'll say is that they really make these scenes the highlights of the movie by being as flashy and energetic as an Elvis Presley show should be. You also get to hear many Elvis tunes in the movie from old favourites like "Suspicious Minds" and many other tunes. If you're an Elvis fan, you'll be in for an enjoyable show with some great Elvis music, that much is certain.
Sadly, my praises for the story have to end here because I do have some big problems with it. First of all, much like with Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, the story feels very familiar and is too much like what you'd expect in your average rock band or famous superstar movie. You've all heard this one before: the story of a man who has a lot of talent, is found by an agent, is propelled into superstardom and is exploited by said agent until eventually his life spirals out of control and in the case of Elvis, he ends up dead in the end. It's super-predictable and hits all these moments note-for-note. Granted this is based on Elvis's life and I imagine the story is pretty close to how his life actually was, but as a plot for a movie it's still very by-the-numbers and lacks a lot of real surprises.
Also I dunno if it's just me, but the pacing of this movie is all over the place. The first half of the movie is VERY haphazardly structured and paced together, practically rushing from one moment of Elvis's life to the next while barely giving the audience time to keep up and it ends up leaving the viewer feeling overwhelmed with all these quick jumps and transitions from one scene to the next. The second half thankfully slows down and we don't get as much of this for the rest of the movie, but that also has its own problems. The first half felt too fast whereas the second half feels too long so you're left with a movie where you want it to slow down for a minute only to then regret saying that as it takes way too long to wrap up. Seriously, there's a few points where it seems the movie's going to wrap up but then it keeps going and it left me getting a little impatient to get to the end.
But the biggest problem for me comes not from the pacing or the generic plot, but from the sound. This might just be a me-problem, but this movie was JUST. TOO. NOISY!!! No joke, about 80% of the movie is just constant noise almost non-stop and it barely gives you a break from it. Whether it's music playing or the crowd screaming for Elvis, it's just a lot of noise for a lot of the movie and it just starts to get too much after a while. It was worse for me because I saw the movie in IMAX and IMAX speakers are really damn loud so I had to watch a lot of the movie covering my ears just to make the noise less intense for me. As someone with autism, I suffer from sensory overload and this movie really gave me a bad case of that. All the fast-paced visuals and the constant noise just made this an uncomfortable sit for me. I kid you not, by the time the movie was over, the first thing I said was "The film was decent but I feel like I need a break after all that!" Seriously, even Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman knew when to shut the hell up and wasn't just noise nearly all of the time! This movie on the other hand makes me feel like The Grinch!
Of course it isn't just noise all the time. It DOES take a moment to give you quieter scenes but as I say, it doesn't feel enough and the noise is still a bit much in the end. If you're someone that can't stand a lot of noise, I wouldn't recommend seeing this in cinemas. You might be better off watching this at home on your TV or computer screen with the volume turned down so it doesn't get so overbearing.
If you're here expecting an engaging story with a richly-told plot and deep, complex characters, then this movie might not be for you. If you're here for a movie that pays tribute to one of music's biggest superstars, then you may enjoy this. Just be sure to watch this with a lower volume if you're not that keen on a lot of noise like I am...
OK, "characters" is the wrong word to use here because these people actually exist/existed but you get what I mean anyway. The enjoyment of watching a biopic is to see how the movie portrays the people that are in it and the actors they get to play them, so how'd they do here? Let's find out:
We have the main man himself, the legendary King of Rock N' Roll that changed music forever, Elvis Presley (played by Austin Butler). If there's anything you'll love about the movie, it's Austin's portrayal of Elvis. Like Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, Austin Butler just NAILS the performance as Elvis Presley! It feels like he IS Elvis and at times, it's easy to forget you're watching an actor playing a role and feel as if Elvis is back from the dead here! Elvis is a hoot throughout the movie thanks to the fantastic acting from Austin and the brilliant dancing and singing that mirrors Elvis's own dance style and vocals perfectly but he also manages to be a compelling protagonist that we can sympathize for. We see in this movie that Elvis is a man who is devoted to his family to the point he's doing whatever he can for them. He's especially attached to his mother and wanting to make her happy and it's quite tear-jerking to watch him just utterly crumple and break down over her death halfway through the movie. Even though we know he dies at the end given what happened to the real Elvis, it's still sad to watch him go at the end...
The only other major character we have here is Colonel Tom Parker (played by the legendary Tom Hanks). Tom is your typical sleazy businessman who cares only about profits and lining his own pockets for his own selfish benefits and needless to say, the movie shows very well just how scummy this guy is. This guy's so dodgy that he even goes under a fake name! Even when he's showing the odd bits of kindness and compassion, you still feel like there's a catch to his behaviour and that you can't trust a word this guy says. This is NOT the usual kind of role Tom Hanks is known for playing and it's quite bizarre to watch him playing a guy that's so much of a slimy snake instead of the usual heroic roles he often plays. But given it's Tom Hanks and Tom Hanks is amazing in everything he does, he plays it brilliantly and is just as enjoyable to watch as Austin is. I dunno how accurate this portrayal is to real life, but Tom to me feels a little too much like a movie character rather than a real person, unlike Elvis where they humanized him well enough. If he really was this much of a piece of garbage, then forgive me if I don't feel sorry for what become of him in the end...
There are other people who show up in the movie but they're mostly just supporting characters in Elvis's story and don't have much else to them. Priscilla Presley (played by Olivia DeJonge) is here as Elvis's wife who tries to support him the best he can in spite of his flashy lifestyle and struggling addictions, Elvis's parents, Gladys and Vernon Presley, are the loving supporting parents of Elvis who want what's best for their son with Gladys being a big moral support for Elvis while Vernon gets roped into Tom's manipulations (presumably unwillingly) and we have appearances from a few other stars like Hank Snow, B.B. King, Little Richard and Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton who don't contribute all that much to the movie.
This is one of those films where there's not a lot of characters, nor does it need a lot of characters to tell its story. It just needs the main ones, Elvis and Tom, to tell the story and they're enough to give us the story that the movie wants to tell. Thanks to some incredible acting from the main cast, you'll easily remember Elvis forever in this movie and may even see him in a whole new way when all is said and done...
Section 3: The Cinematography
It's a Baz Luhrmann movie and he often likes to be flashy and dazzle his audiences with what he shows so it shouldn't surprise you that this is a good looking movie.
When you're seeing a movie about Elvis Presley, you expect it to be a spectacular show and the movie delivers on that front. The scenes with Elvis performing are naturally the highlights of the cinematography as they shoot from many different angles to give us a lot of different views of Elvis performing and give us a lot of flashy, showy set pieces to really make a spectacle out of what we're seeing whether it's his country performance that catches the eye of Tom, his concert show that ends with him getting arrested or especially his shows at the Las Vegas hotel. Now only do they make this look as great to watch as an actual Elvis Presley show, but they capture the look of one too thanks to Austin Butler's spot-on performance as the legendary singer and all the various costumes he wears that are very much like the costumes he would wear in real life, as eccentric as they may look.
The film also manages to accurately capture the look of the 20th century and the times Elvis was living through with the use of vintage technology and the fashion style of the times. Like most biopics, this movie really can make you feel as if you've travelled back in time when you watch it and I give the set designers, costume designers, prop makers and more so much credit for being able to go the extra mile to recreate the days of old. It's also helped by the fact that a few times in the movie, they even use old footage of Elvis during some of the montages or transitions. Most notable is at the end of the movie when they show us footage of the real Elvis performing "Unchained Melody". That was a nice touch and felt like a neat way to cap off the movie by showing us the real Elvis performing. Another shot I particularly loved was the shot of Elvis's private plane taking off into the sky with one last shot of Elvis himself faded over it before the shot fades into a newspaper article confirming Elvis's death. To me it was utterly symbolic of how Elvis has left this world and has ascended up into the heavens and a beautiful piece of cinematography.
Another area of praise the movie deserves is the make-up work. They managed to make Austin Butler look so much like Elvis down to his moves and even his trademark pompadour hairstyle that it's uncanny and it almost feels like we're watching the real deal. A lot of the other actors manage to look like the people they're portraying too such as Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley and they really did a great job on making Tom Hanks look overweight here as Tom Parker. As anyone knows, Tom is not a fat guy, or at least morbidly obese, yet they managed to make him look so convincing here that I'm wondering if it's make-up and prosthetics or if he really did gain weight to look that way. Though I have to ask if the big nose was really necessary. Maybe the real Tom Parker had a big nose but in here, it just looked silly and they didn't need to give Tom that.
As is, the film has some lovely visuals but thanks to the inconsistent pacing I talked about in the story section, it also effects the pacing of said visuals too. Most of these issues are in the first half where we get a lot of quick transitions from one shot to the next, a lot of big logos shooting up in your face and it just leaves you wishing the film would slow down a bit so you can appreciate what's being shown. Thankfully they do slow down and we can appreciate the cinematography some more in the second half but that first half does feel very haphazard and that plus the constant noise is what left me feeling quite overwhelmed after the movie began. It's why the best scenes for me are the quieter moments because the movie's a lot easier to watch when it's not being as fast-paced and in-your-face as it is in the first half. I believe Baz Luhrmann is known for being a bit frenetic in how he his movies are shot and edited, particularly in Moulin Rouge, so this is probably a trademark of his, but I really don't think it was necessary. This is a biopic about Elvis Presley so a more down-to-earth approach would've been better for how to visually show this movie rather than being as over-the-top as possible and making it feel more "movie" so to speak.
Regardless, when you see an Elvis movie, you expect the visuals to be worth a look at and they manage to do that well for the most part. It's as entrancing to watch as an actual Elvis Presley performance is...
Elvis is a biopic that delivers what it promises, a movie about Elvis Presley. As a movie based on Elvis, it's a show-stopping spectacle that gives us the great Elvis tunes we know and love but it suffers too much from inconsistent pacing, generic plotting and constant noise that makes the viewing experience feel more exhausting than enjoyable. It's saved from being bad thanks to Austin Butler and Tom Hanks's performances, the interesting history behind Elvis displayed here and the grand visuals but if it just turned the noise down a little and better paced the story, it could've been something really special. For what we got, it was worth a watch. I just don't think I'd ever want to watch it on the big screen again. It's better to watch it at home when you can have the volume down a bit so it's not overbearing with the noise. Still, as an Elvis fan, I'd say it was worth it to see it and I've honestly gained a newfound respect for the man, as well as a deeper interest in him upon learning more about him. And if it the movie can make me more interested in the man it's about, then it's done something right at least...
And that's all I have for my review on Elvis. I hope you enjoyed it and I would like to hear your thoughts down below. Do you love it? Do you not love it? Are you an Elvis fan or is his music not to your taste? Feel free to share in the comments. Join me next week as we go from a musical movie to a real-life musical concert as I celebrate the 37th anniversary of Live Aid with the Top 10 Best Performances of the concert. See you then media fans!