Review | Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ is a spectacular surprise

Elvis | Dir: Baz Luhrmann | ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

In true Baz Luhrmann style, the opening gem-encrusted credits promise that his latest film will be absolutely spectacular, just as one would expect from the director that brought us Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Some people will be expecting to be entertained by Elvis’s memorable songs and some will be expecting a larger-than-life rendition of Elvis’s life story, celebrating things we already know.

But Luhrmann’s film is not a biopic that celebrates the world’s number one singer or his songs. The songs supply an undercurrent to the turbulent times of ultra-conservatism and extreme racism in America as the film delves into the humane side of Elvis, his family dynamics and the relationship with Colonel Tom Parker who became Elvis’s manager.

A dying Tom Parker, Tom Hanks (who must have spent hours in make-up each day) narrates the Elvis story – from the wide-eyed young boy growing up in one of the few White-designated houses in a Black community, being attracted to the music and receiving the spirit at the Pentecostal church, to his exhausted and drug-addled death of a heart attack at the age of 42.

Tom Parker is not a likable figure but the carnival manager managed to bewitch Elvis and his parents and take 50% of Elvis’s earnings as he steered Elvis to stardom. Parker wasn’t his real name, he wasn’t even American and he didn’t have a military title. He even called himself ‘the snowman’ because he knew he had the ability to snow or fool people, even without the need for a carnival House of Mirrors.

Elvis becomes caught in a trap, performing in Las Vegas rather than touring overseas as he dreamt to do. There is a terrible scene in the film, evidently based on actual events, where Elvis is having his head dunked into a bucket of cold water to revive him. When this doesn’t work, Parker instructs the doctor to do whatever he has to in order to get Elvis back on the stage.

Austin is fantastic as the charismatic Elvis, belting out the early songs and gyrating on stage, although Luhrmann has said that they blended Austin’s voice with the older Elvis to give it a richness. The soundtrack also features A-list performers across the whole musical spectrum and the film is absolutely spectacular, but probably not in a way that most people would be expecting.

Lezly Herbert

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