At 2.5 hours, Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS movie is a wild ride, covering Presley’s life from childhood to his untimely death at age 42. As an Elvis historian and author, my interest is in examining how the film does or does not distort Elvis Presley’s true history.
There are so many Elvis myths out there that people make comments about daily on social media, and I have been on a mission to combat those false stereotypes about Elvis with the articles and books that I have written. My hope is that the film is entertaining, and at the same time, does not enforce any false narratives. That is how I am approaching my review of the ELVIS movie.
Please note that I could include much more in my review, but these were the initial highlights that jumped out at me. I will also be delving deeper into specific topics addressed in the movie in additional articles.
What I liked about the ELVIS movie:
I loved Austin Butler’s portrayal of Elvis! As Lisa Marie said, he really nailed it! From his mimicking of Elvis’ voice and accent from the 1950s through to the 1970s, to his embodiment of the dancing and physicality of Elvis, the fans couldn’t have asked for a better actor to take on the role.
You could spend hours and hours talking about how accurate and respectful Austin Butler’s portrayal of Elvis was, and I believe that is why the Presley family gave such a great endorsement of the movie.
Austin sings the 1950s Elvis songs in the movie, and lip-synchs to the rest. Here is the pre-production test of him singing “That’s All Right.”
The depiction of Beale Street in Memphis in the 1950s was an important historical segment in the film. The focus was on Club Handy, an African-American club, where Elvis was known to have visited on occasion. The style and visual presentation of these scenes brought the authentic musical atmosphere to life – something Baz Luhrmann is known for in his movies.
We are treated to performances by Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe there. Elvis also has interesting conversations with BB King at the club. There was also an insightful scene of Presley trying to get to Club Handy while he is surrounded by black teenagers on Beale Street who want his autograph – a great reference to the lesser-known fact that Elvis was very popular with the black community in the 1950s.
Hands down, the most electrifying parts of the film are the musical numbers – another trademark of Luhrmann’s films. The well-known performances, such as Presley’s 1950s TV appearances, the 1968 Comeback Special and the Las Vegas years, as well as lesser-known early concerts in the 1950s were done with extreme attention to detail.
It is totally understandable why Luhrmann took artistic license and mixed together several details in order to move the storyline along. For example, there is a scene where Elvis sings “Trouble” during a 1956/1957 concert, even though in reality he did not sing that song live at the time.
THE ROCK AND ROLL BACKLASH
I appreciated the scenes in the film that addressed all the controversy that Elvis caused among the white establishment and parents. Elvis took a lot of heat for his embrace of black music and culture, and his suggestive dance moves. It’s an important part of history to remember how much resistance there was to rock and roll music when it first became popular.
I really wanted to LOVE this film 100%, but…
What I did not like about the ELVIS movie:
The first half of the film is frenetic and chaotic – obviously trying to appeal to the social media generation. In truth, it almost gave me a headache watching how fast the beginning of the movie went. It tried to include as much as possible about Presley’s early days without taking a breath. The second half runs at a more reasonable pace.
A LITTLE LESS ACTION, A LITTLE MORE CONVERSATION NEEDED
I do not feel like they went too in-depth into Elvis Presley’s personality. In the film, Austin Butler in the role as Presley did not say that much, and when he did, some of the time it felt like unrealistic statements which were actually based on facts that emerged, for example, about The Colonel, AFTER Elvis died.
As one critic wrote: “There’s lots of [Elvis] in Baz Luhrmann’s film, swaggering and crooning and sweating. But little of his inner life, the fire uniquely his, is communicated to the audience. It’s a film about a legend that keeps him just that: an idea, thrashing away at a distance.”
I did not like the cartoonish aspect of presenting Colonel Parker as the villain, and I never understood why Tom Hanks used a European-type accent. No matter what Colonel Parker’s background, he had adopted an American accent by the time he met Elvis. However, I know that Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Parker fits into Baz Luhrmann’s “over the top” theatrical style.
Ironically, in a Q&A after the second screening at Graceland on June 12, 2022, Baz Luhrmann said that the relationship between Colonel Parker and Elvis was “such a complicated relationship” and he did not intend to take a point of view on Colonel Parker in the film. He continued to say, “the man was a genius.”
However, the movie is so slanted against the Colonel, it just reinforces all the hatred that is already out there by the fans against Parker. Some of that sentiment is fueled by myths that are not true.
I was disappointed with the portrayal of Priscilla by Olivia DeJonge. Just watch any interview with Priscilla and it is obvious that she is a soft-spoken, quiet person — which I think is why Elvis was drawn to her in the first place. In contrast, in the movie she came across as a chatterbox, with a kind of aggressive vocal tone.
Also, I understand due to time constraints they left out Elvis’ relationships with other women, except for a brief time in the early days with Dixie Locke. In fact Baz Luhrmann said he had a rough cut of the film that was 4 hours long. In the Q&A, he described a scene of Elvis singing “In the Ghetto” in the Jungle Room that unfortunately was cut from the film.
But one scene that is really irritating is when they play the “Viva Las Vegas” song in a compilation scene of the movie years and show Priscilla, not Ann-Margret. It made no sense to me. It just reminded me that the filmmaker missed out on including a lot of significant people in Presley’s life.
TOO MUCH DRAMA
I felt like there was too much of a negative tone focused on Elvis’ career, and hardly any of the fun that Elvis had in his life. In the 1950s section, it was one drama after another. I felt the fun and enjoyment of Presley achieving success was missing, in addition to Presley’s sense of humor.
There was a golf cart scene with his friends at Graceland in the 1960s to show the lighter side of Presley’s life, but it only lasted about 30 seconds.
The focus on several negative events that took place in the years leading up to Elvis’ death set an overall bleak tone. Elvis says near the end of the film, “I’m all out of dreams.”
In my opinion, the overall theme of the film left me with a gloomy feeling, suggesting that Elvis was tortured by his career and he did not really enjoy it – which in real life, I don’t believe was true.
Nevertheless, my hope is that this film removes the “halloween costume” perception of Elvis (as described by Baz Luhrmann) that exists with some of the mainstream culture. For example, The Tonight Show host, Jimmy Fallon, recently had Austin Butler on his show to talk about the film and praised him for his portrayal.
However, it was in 2014 when Fallon contributed to the “halloween costume” insults by doing a duet with Barbra Streisand for “Love Me Tender.” He threw on a ridiculous wig. It wasn’t just me that was extremely disappointed in that segment. I remember Elvis’ friend, George Klein, commenting about it on his Sirius XM radio show and he was not happy about it!
Director Luhrmann has stated often that he hopes to attract a younger generation of fans to Elvis through this film. However, I am concerned that many people who weren’t fans of Elvis before this, will be more focused on Austin Butler, and not as much on Elvis.
This tweet by Canadian TV host Cynthia Loyst sums up that sentiment: “Saw a sneak peek of Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis Movie and I can’t stop thinking about how beautiful Austin Butler is and how tragic the story of Elvis is.”
I think the most important influence a movie can have is how it makes you feel when you leave the theater.
If, after all the glitz and excitement that has surrounded this film, it is just going to end with everyone feeling sorry for Elvis, that would be a crying shame!
Elvis lived a wonderful life and shared his talents with the world. His legacy will last forever. Even though he died young, at this point, no one should be feeling sorry for him, but rather appreciate what he achieved during his lifetime!
I hope this film about Elvis, and any other film about him for that matter, gets that point across.
ELVIS opens June 24 in theaters.
Get a free gift when you sign up for the Elvis News Examiner newsletter:
7 thoughts on “ELVIS MOVIE REVIEW: From a historian’s perspective”
Riley Keogh had made a comment somewhere, where she said watching the movie was overwhelming because of the generational trauma that existed – so I wonder if that’s what Baz was trying to do with this film; show the downsides that Elvis faced. Either way, as an Elvis fan, I know I’ll love it nonetheless. Great review!
LikeLiked by 1 person
You can never portray the life of Elvis 100 percent perfectly in a film. I don’t care if you have Brad Pitt. George Clooney Chris hemsworth and lady Gaga
It’s just impossible!!!
Don’t but and pick because you are an Elvis fan. This is going to attract the younger audiences to what it was like before all the sound effects and stage show lighting and 6 dancers on stage.
This was just a one man show!!!
What we are getting from this amazing film is the best Elvis film that was ever made. PERIOD!!!
Best actor and supporting actor coming right up!!!
Thanks for sharing a great review. I look forward to checking out the film and appreciate your insights.
Your review does not make me want to see this movie but I will as a fan of 60plus years.
Very good and balanced critique. It’s too bad more of Elvis’ true fans are never consulted on movies about him.
very good review. Why is Ginger Alden not mentioned in the film?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Since the “A Little Less Conversation,” which went number 1 in countries around the world, but had hardly any airplay in the US, America, about which Elvis was so proud, has turned its back on him. Succinctly put, this movie presents an opportunity for Elvis’s fans, and some ready to become fans, to demonstrate his cultural and musical relevance by giving it their full support. If it also serves to help Mr. Butler’s reputation, despite the carping of some naysayers, so be it.