Breaking the Mold: A Film Review on Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis
The visuals, the storytelling, the acting, the music. There is something very satisfying about a film that checks all the boxes without confining its creative potential. Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, Elvis presents audiences with a unique sensory experience that combines modern graphics, sounds, nostalgia culture, and the music of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to tell the exhilarating story of the King of Rock & Roll himself, Elvis Presley. Through this harmony of sound and sight, Luhrmann channels his inner Elvis and demonstrates the power that tradition and creative experimentation have when it comes to charming audiences.
Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis Presley
The film opens with a strong narration not by Elvis, but Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, who is ultimately responsible for many of the singer’s hardships. Hanks’ role as the villain of the story certainly gives critics much to discuss as prosthetics and a distinct accent transform him into the late singer’s manager. Seeing the world from the perspective of the antagonist is a bold move on Luhrmann’s part, but it works because it places the audience in the unlikely situation of hearing a beloved icon’s story from the perspective of a man who contributed to his suffering. As ironic as the situation might be, Parker’s retelling of the events reinforces the empathy that audiences feel for Elvis as he is blindsided by someone he trusts. Because the film is not told through Elvis’ eyes, theater-goers witness him navigate through the wins and woes of fame from a fan’s perspective. Parker uses this against the audience as a punchline by claiming that it was not his controversial actions, but Elvis’ love for his admirers that ultimately led to the singer’s downfall.
What also stands out is the film's vivid visual approach, which highlights the spectacle that surrounded Elvis’ life. Right from the beginning, the film intertwines shimmering graphics and rapid cuts between carnival themed objects to draw parallels between the madness of a circus and Elvis’ role as a public figure. Through this bold editing decision, the King symbolically transforms into a circus performer, whose appeal to audiences and incomparable talent is exploited at his expense. The immersive camerawork in the film mimics the constant motion in the singer’s life. Rather than keeping the camera locked at a fixed point, Luhrmann chooses to follow the action and give audiences the impression that they are traveling with the singer. One of the most creative visual techniques of the film is its use of montages utilizing the modern split screen technique and bold text graphics as transitions. In many scenes where Elvis is performing, the audience is presented with various images at once that are composed of close ups of Elvis’ appearance, his fans’ reactions, and vibrant text that establishes the chaos and excitement of that moment in time.
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley
Creatively one of the more interesting decisions is the usage of both modern styles of music, and the music of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. While the film evokes nostalgia by bringing Elvis’ greatest hits to life, it also incorporates contemporary genres such as R&B, rap, and hip-hop. One would assume that these newer styles of music would feel out of place in a film about the King of Rock & Roll, but much like the modern visuals of the film, the nontraditional music choices add to the excitement and unpredictability of the narrative. A memorable example is when Elvis is swaggering down Beale Street to the beat of Doja Cat’s “Vegas”. The song, which combines “Hound Dog” (1952) by Big Mama Thornton and rap verses from Doja Cat, perfectly captures the feeling of familiarity and newfound fame that Elvis encounters.
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley
While the sights and the sounds in this film are phenomenal, the heart of the story centers around the King of Rock & Roll. Taking on the enormous task of portraying the beloved icon is breakout star, Austin Butler. Viewing the film is a unifying experience as Butler’s performance allows generations that grew up as fans of the King to be filled with nostalgia, and new generations to appreciate the impact of the late singer. Elvis’ story captures the highs and lows of the entertainment industry and how stardom can have a negative impact on the performer. Butler enchants viewers with his facial communication, which expresses the love and trust as well as the heartbreak and betrayal Elvis encountered in his life. Where Butler really shines however, is in his ability to emulate Elvis’ vocal mannerisms through his speech and musical performances. He charms audiences by channeling Elvis’ southern accent and altering his singing voice to match the King’s style. During the second half of the film, when Butler’s singing voice is mixed in with Elvis’ original vocals, it is evident that there is a strong resemblance between the two voices.
Much like Elvis was known for breaking tradition and experimenting with his musical sound, Baz Luhrmann and his team succeed in placing a unique spin on the story of a familiar icon. What makes Elvis special is how the visual and sonic elements work in harmony, evoking an emotional response from the audience. It satisfies the senses and allows fans of the late singer to witness his journey into stardom from an unexplored angle. By uniting both modern and more traditional styles of storytelling, camerawork, editing, music, and acting, Luhrmann creates an exhilarating cinematic experience which proves one thing. Elvis and his legacy are timeless.