I’ve never been an Elvis fan so the thought of sitting through a 2hr 40min biopic of the dude didn’t exactly make me want to leap for joy. Maybe if it was about Andrew Gold, Christopher Cross or Stephen Bishop I’d have been more excited but it wasn’t and it isn’t but it turns out that’s a good thing because Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ (2022) might be the best theatrically released movie so far this year. I mean, I still can’t stand his music (let’s face it — he was no Chris de Burgh or Peter Skellern) but this film is a blast.
What’s so invigorating and electrifying about Luhrmann’s movie is the sheer amount of, well, vigour and electricity powering it all and when Austin Butler’s Presley thrusts his crotch through the veneer of American “respectability” for the first time on stage it feels like we’re not just witnessing but actively engaged in the invention of unrestrained sexual arousal. Whoa! So THAT’S what all the fuss was about back then?! And once that energy has been released Luhrmann doesn’t even attempt to shove it back into the bottle for a second… even if he could.
This highly energetic effect is achieved through a combination of kinetic, yet never confusing, camera work, fluid editing, outstanding costumes, a dazzling central performance by Butler and some blisteringly dynamic and complex sound design. Indeed, for all the visual fireworks on display it almost feels as though it is the sound track that’s telling the story and driving everything forward. Spirituals seamlessly merge into rock and roll with bursts of contemporary music providing not just a modern day commentary regarding influences but also letting the audience experience just how new, fresh and dangerous Elvis must have been at that time. There’d have been nothing like it.
And it’s not just the music but all the other sounds, silences and sonic spaces all expertly played with that’s so exhilarating: it’s the sound of collective, sexually charged breaths being held waiting for a song to explode into life; the lone squeal of a mic’s feedback in a hushed arena; an softly echoing, whispered ‘huh’; the specific reverb of a certain room that creates the atmosphere as much as anything we’re seeing. And it all flows, constantly, with total precision.
That precision extends to Butler’s performance, right down to his little fingers. There’s an ecstatic moment where Elvis has an entire crowd — nay, an entire TOWN! — in collective suspense by the simple act of raising his pinky and we’re utterly hypnotised. Christ, Butler makes an even better Elvis than Elvis himself did!
Not that the film isn’t without issues. It’s too long for one thing with the perky, relentless thrusting threatening to descend into tedious dry-humping in the last half hour as Elvis’ Las Vegas residency takes its toll on him, although it is too Lurhmann’s credit than he always keeps Elvis in his “prime” even when he’s at his lowest (we never feel we are in danger of gawking at an overweight grotesque).
Then there’s Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker in what might be the most baffling casting and acting decision this year with Hanks playing Presley’s manager as though he was auditioning for the part of Goldmember in ‘Austin Powers’. It’s laughable, outrageous and totally ridiculous… and I loved it. The energy of the rest of the film is so big, so intense, that it almost needs a performance like Hanks’ to keep up with everything else going on.
‘Elvis’ has flaws but three quarters of it, at least, make up one of the most genuinely exciting, thrilling and enjoyable pieces of cinema I’ve seen in the last five or so years. It hasn’t turned me into an Elvis fan by any means but it’s seriously swinging me round to Luhrmann and I’m dying to see what Butler will do next.