Elvis Presley casts a giant shadow over America. He's such a monumental figure in the culture that even those who have never seen any of his films or heard any of his songs know who he is. His home, Graceland, is the second most-visited estate after the White House. Impersonators abound, forever keeping the memory of The King alive. As such, no film could be expected to capture all of Presley's life. Elvis does not, and it does showcase all the glitz and opulence of his persona. However, the lead's star-making turn, along with a brash production elevate it to rousing entertainment.
Narrated by Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis recounts the life and career of Elvis Presley, this poor white Southern boy who unlike most of his peers, grew up around black people. Intrigued by both the secular blues music and the sacred gospel music around him, Presley absorbed these genres along with the more traditional country music of the white community in that musical hodgepodge known as Memphis, Tennessee.
Colonel Parker, carnival snowman (a conman really), is enthralled with the fact that this white boy can sing like a black man. He sees in Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) the idea crossover figure, one who will make him a great deal of money. Presley, determined to provide for his parents, agrees to make Colonel Parker his manager. From there, Parker leads his client into massive (albeit controversial) success, with merchandising, movies and live concerts.
Presley wants more for his own personal life, but Colonel Parker has a way of stopping things like world tours or better film roles. The reasons are not just financial, but personal. Ultimately though, despite being old enough to be his father, Colonel Parker outlives The King, but lives long enough to see that Elvis is eternal and loved, while he is mortal and reviled.
Elvis has as its major plus the central role played by Austin Butler. Butler has it all in his portrayal of Presley. He has the physicality down: the snarl, the gyrations, the voice, none of which feel like mimicry or spoof. Butler does more than capture Presley's on-stage persona. In the few moments where Elvis is allowed to be soft and still, Butler reveals the tragedy, hurt, anger and fear Presley faced. His best moments are when Presley is human, frail. In his devastation on his mother Gladys' (Heather Thomson) death. In how he expresses his regrets about his life and loss of the male lead in the Streisand version of A Star is Born, Buter shows us the full range of this man. It is an exceptional performance, and if he does not become a star with both Elvis and the upcoming Dune: Part II, it'll be one of the most shocking turns ever.
Not that Butler skimp when it comes to the concert scenes. He unleashes the wild, uninhibited man who just does what his body wants him to do. There's an almost ferocious manner to his stage performances, even when Presley has become sadly corpulent and almost a parody of himself. Both on stage and behind the scenes, Austin Butler does what once was thought impossible: he outacts Tom Hanks.
To be fair, it is not that Hanks wasn't trying, but the script went overboard in making Colonel Parker into a cartoonish villain. A good villain never knows he is a villain. More often than not, the villain believes he is either merely smarter than everyone else or that he is actually doing good (mostly for him/herself). As played by Hanks, however, Colonel Parker knows Colonel Parker is EVIL, to where he was a mustache short of twirling.
The presumably Dutch accent and theatrical manner, however, do not help. While Elvis drops hints that Colonel Parker is in reality an illegal alien and not the man from West Virginia as he claims, Elvis never has that fact fully formed. As he totters around, hamming it up for all its worth, the sight of the evil Colonel Tom Parker in a Christmas sweater forever demanding Presley sing Here Comes Santa Claus is almost comical. This performance will probably be the nadir of Hanks' career with perhaps only his villainous turn in The Ladykillers giving it a run for his money.
It's curious that Hanks, who built his career and own persona as the most loveable of Americans, flounders when playing a truly villainous role.
I do not think it is all Hanks' fault, though he bears a great deal of the blame. I think it is because director Baz Luhrmann (who cowrote the script with Sam Bromell, Craig Pierce and Jeremy Doner) were more interested in the flash and glitz of Presley's persona. To be fair, Luhrmann did capture a lot of that mythic Presley stage magic: the Las Vegas concerts shot in the same manner of the Presley concert documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is.
In terms of costuming and theatrics, Elvis does Elvis proud. However, sometimes less is more, and Elvis might have done better to focus on Presley the man versus Presley the showman. As so much focus is on the entertainer, we get little from Presley's wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who is in very few scenes to where she was essentially not important to the story.
Other performances such as Thomson as Gladys were strong, but it is a shame that Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s B.B. King or Yola's Sister Rosetta Tharpe just popped in and out.
Despite the weakness of the script and an uncharacteristically bad Tom Hanks performance, Elvis will please Presley fans. With a star-making performance from Austin Butler, grand staging and a sympathetic portrait of Presley, Elvis is a film that loves The King tender.