Austin Butler as Elvis in sunglasses looks out a car window at a lit-up marquee
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a maximalist dream. It’s a loosely focused biopic of one of America’s greatest musical creations that jumps and shimmies through the early infatuation of the young Presley with the Black gospel music of his downtrodden youth, to the stardom of his 20s and 30s, and through his decline into drugs and despondency. Flashes of color, lightning cuts, and the camera spins and needle drops are at times overwhelming, but it’s an overall enjoyable experience that washes over you in waves of excitement.

Austin Butler does an excellent job expressing the barrage of emotions that Presley undergoes in his meteoric rise and fall, evoking pathos through his eyes. And the performances throughout the film are poignant reminders of the lasting impact Elvis has on American pop culture.

Luhrmann’s film is best described as hagiography; events seem to happen to Presley—run-ins with the law, financial crisis, family drama—without any real insight into how our hero causes or contributes to them. Even the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy are shown less in terms of their cultural impact and more as things that cause Elvis to have a bad day. Elvis’s relationship with the Black community is portrayed as one of a friendly enthusiast who’s welcomed into the fold and suffers more consequences from the white political elite than the Black musicians who were unable to reach his stature due to their race, who he uses as mentors and confidants.

More confusing than some of the quick cuts, temporal shifts, and squeaky-clean race relations is Luhrmann’s choice to utilize manager Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) as the narrator of this story. He’s a character who I doubt even a mother could love, played with an accent from Hanks that can most charitably be described as “ethnically insensitive to Cajuns.” It’s a bizarre choice of a narrator who offers surprisingly little insight into his actions and who we spend more time hating than wanting to learn information from. PG-13, 159 min.

Wide release in theaters