Making a biopic is always a daunting task: whether alive or dead, good or bad, old or young, dramatising someone’s life into a two/two-and-a-half-hour film is quite a challenge, let alone finding someone to be able to play said subject. But, it’s one of Hollywood’s favourite things to do and, in recent years, much like superheroes, we seem to have a new one every month. Now, it’s Bas Luhrmann’s turn to have a go with his biopic of The King himself, Elvis Presley: it’s not the first time, of course, with John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie starring Kurt Russell, as well as countless others that feature the great performer. But the coming together of Luhrmann’s manic, campy excesses with Presley’s unattainable, unquestionable talent always felt just be a match made in heaven but can this whopping 159-minute attempt really do justice to one of music’s most potent idols?
Luhrmann has always been a director who paints and draws with his camera: not a pixel of the frame is spared from his kaleidoscopic, buccaneering and wholly unique stylistics that leaves many feeling nirvana whilst others feel nauseated. Here, it’s more of the latter, where you feel like a discombobulated person trying to float in the ocean, struggling for breath, air, and the peace of the surface. His bravado and his images are unquestionably beautiful but here they feel suffocating and threaten to mute its greatest asset. There are some strokes of pure genius here – some of the 1968 comeback special moments and Elvis’s early years are utterly awe-inspiring, filled with the same colour, pizazz, and magic as its protagonist – but, through its 150-odd minutes of runtime, they are few and far between. Luhrmann has always been something of a marmite filmmaker, of course, and one person’s annoyance is another’s euphoria, and given the coalescence of director and story, this one will certainly have a plethora of fans regardless. There’s also the strange case of Tom Hanks, one of cinema’s nicest men playing one of entertainment’s most notoriously ruthless and avaricious characters: it never quite works, with his odd accent and disjointed portrayal only adding to the unevenness of it all.
Front and centre, of course, is Austin Butler. Just 30 and best known for his roles in TV series The Carrie Diaries and The Shannara Chronicles, as well as turns in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and The Dead Won’t Die, this is his big break and they don’t come much bigger. Such was the combination of pressure, commitment, and nervousness about tackling such a gargantuan task, Butler spent over a year preparing, and that time, we can tell you, has been ridiculously well spent. There’s always talk of method acting, the immersion into a role that sees the actor “disappear”: some believe this to be a necessary task to do justice to the part, others believe “acting” is all one needs but whatever he did here, Butler has seen all his dedication pay off in spades. Oodles of them.
Every morsel of his being is immersed in The King’s world: every gesture is thoughtful, every swivel of his legs and hips, well, hypnotic and his voice makes even the smallest hairs stand up on end such is the power and sensation of his performance. What elevates him alongside, say, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line is that he sings almost every note, he feels every emotion because he is performing himself rather than lip-syncing to the great man himself and trying to emote what Elvis was all those years ago (in the latter stages, his voice is blended with the great man’s but its still no less powerful). There’s something false about doing biopics like that – Rami Malek, for example, won an Oscar for miming, and not once did he FEEL like Freddie Mercury – and Luhrmann’s decision to have his lead take to the stage rather than mimic is a stroke of genius as Butler makes almost no false moves and helps to cushion the film’s foibles.
Biopic, Drama | 2022 | Warner Bros Pictures | Dir: Baz Lurhmann | Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Yola, Luke Bracey, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jnr, Kodi Smit-McPhee,