The movie is told from the point of view of Elvis’s (Austin Butler) manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks under an inch or two of makeup), a huckster with a flair for spotting talent and a gift for manipulation.
Working on the carnival circuit taught Parker that a great act “gave the audience feelings they weren’t sure if they should enjoy,” a standard the early, hip-shaking Elvis met and exceeded.
Their partnership is one of the best known, and well documented success stories of the twentieth century. For twenty years, through the birth of rock ‘n roll of the late 1950s and the cheesy Hollywood years to the legendary 1968 Comeback Special and the Las Vegas rise and fall, Elvis and the Colonel shimmied and shook their way to the top of the charts and into the history books.
“Elvis” covers a lot of ground. From young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) discovering his love of music from the Black rhythm and blues artists and Mississippi church music he absorbed as a kid to his final white jumpsuit days in Vegas, Luhrmann shakes, rattles and rolls throughout in a blur of images and spectacular sound design.
It entertains the eye but feels akin to skipping a stone on a lake. If you hold the stone just right and throw it across the still water at the correct angle, it will skim along for what seems like forever without ever piercing the surface.
“Elvis” is a great looking movie. A pop art explosion that vividly essays the story’s various time frames and styles, it makes an impact visually and sonically. Unfortunately, Luhrmann is content to make your eyeballs dance, your gold TCB chains rattle and simply skim across the surface.
We do learn that Elvis was the sum of his country music and R’n’B experiences and influences, was fueled by the adoration of his audience and aware of the social change of the 1960s, but there is no excavation, no real exploration of what made the singer or his manager actually tick. It may seem fitting that a movie about a man who drove pink Cadillacs and wore phoenix embroidered jumpsuits and capes is over-the-top, but those images are so woven into the fabric of popular culture already that this feels clichéd, more like greatest hits album than a biography.
Butler is a charismatic performer, playing Elvis through several stages of his life, and despite the superficiality of the storytelling hands in a rounded performance that transcends impersonation of a man who spawned a generation (or two) of impersonators.
It’s rare to see Hanks play a character with no redeeming qualities. “I am the man who gave the world Elvis Presley,” he says, “and yet there are some who would make me out to be the villain of this story.” His take on Colonel Parker grates, with the theatrical Dutch accent and imperious, manipulative manner, he is certainly the villain of the piece. He’s a pantomime of the big, bad music manager, one who saw his client as a musical ATM machine and little more.
By the time the end credits roll “Elvis” emerges as an idealized look at the boy from Tupelo who became the King by paying tribute to the power of the music that made a legend.