Baz Luhrmann’s sixth feature-length film is a masterful visual extravaganza; a biopic-remix that’s more superhero origin story than most this year.
By Ankit Ojha on June 24, 2022

Director Baz Luhrmann’s (“Moulin Rouge!,” 2001) sixth feature-length film “Elvis is officially the best superhero story of 2022.

Sure, it’s technically a biopic exploring the life and times of Elvis Presley—played by Austin Butler (“Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” 2019)—but it’s a whole lot more. It’s an unreliable, almost fantastic retelling of the titular hero’s timeline, told through the perspective of a dying Parker (Tom Hanks; “Sully,” 2016). It’s a consistently audacious and hypnotic moviegoing experience that doesn’t greatly care for biopic realism as it does for feeling like and being a three-course moviegoing experience. It’s a film that makes its 159-minute runtime feel like 90 minutes. It’s a romance, a musical, and a biopic rolled into one gorgeously immersive joint.

And it starts right from the first frame—kaleidoscopic logos and all. As the dreamy, reverberating vocals of Elvis sampled from “Suspicious Minds” envelop you, it’s almost like the movie egging you to lose yourself and take the leap. You’re hit by an unwitting ordinariness as you’re transported to the opening scene. For a few seconds, you wonder if Luhrmann made a straight-up docudrama after all. But as the older, weaker Colonel Tom Parker falls to the ground, the movie shifts to fifth gear.

As he drives off in an ambulance, the cornucopia of elliptic speed via hyper-lapses, quick cuts, and the occasional distortion hint at the possibility that you’re now in Parker’s feeble, scattered mind. This is when the collaboration between cinematographer Mandy Walker (“Mulan,” 2020) and co-editors Matt Villa (“Predestination,” 2014), and Jonathan Redmond (“The Great Gatsby,” 2013). 

Walker gracefully forms a sex-positive frame on Presley’s famous gyrations. The hip-wiggling, according to writer Glenn “The Style Guy” O’Brien, “[…] brought screams to the throats of a thousand girls, and tears to their eyes.” She uses her female gaze to ensure her work isn’t salacious or sensational. On the other hand, Villa and Redmond accentuate it further in the edit via the borders on the split screens swaying to the rhythm of his hips whenever this happens.

The source of this hypnotic gyration is the man who plays Elvis. Austin Butler is an incredible tour-de-force who looks so much like Elvis in many places in the film that you’re prone to forget what Elvis looked like. Butler’s star-making role under Luhrmann offers him a wide range of parts to play, all of which he successfully delivers. His chemistry with DeJonge is incredible—which isn’t really surprising. This is because the director has already set a precedent for scorching onscreen romances in “Moulin Rouge!,” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” (1996), and “The Great Gatsby.” 

An incredible old-Hollywood moment between the leads is set to a cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Kacey Musgraves. It isn’t just breathtakingly romantic but also framed by the makers—lighting et al.—to convey that both Elvis and Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge; “Better Watch Out,” 2017) know they’re stars of their own movie. It’s not the stereotypical man-breaks-fourth-wall-to-wink-at-you parody; no. It’s a graceful acceptance of being the protagonists of their lives.

Human Gyroscope // Austin Butler in a moving still from Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures film.

Speaking of Musgraves, the film’s most prominent protagonist is its soundtrack. It’s packed to the brim, from classical works (Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”) to remasters of Elvis singles like his cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama.” Its biggest virtue, however, is that it has no interest in feeling dated. 

The “Elvis” soundtrack brings in a host of current soundscapes by chartbuster artists like Doja Cat, Tame Impala, Eminem, Swae Lee, Diplo, and Måneskin. This marriage of the past and present gives the film an audio makeover that sounds the most that a Baz movie or television series can get. Sound has played a significant part in the director’s “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby;” I can only be glad the tradition continues here. Look out for Shonka Dukureh’s robust cover of Big Mama Thorton’s “Hound Dog” and Jazmine Sullivan’s crooning to “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”—both of which are almost inseparable from the film’s verisimilitude, much like the more than 30 other singles featured.

Also featured are noteworthy figures in Elvis’ life, like real-life blues singer-songwriter played with great conviction by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” 2020), or television producer and director Steve Binder, essayed onscreen by Dacre Montgomery (“Power Rangers,” 2017). It’s a film with a significant assortment of characters, of whom only three are framed in the movie as able to see through everyone’s bullshit. They’re Elvis’ mother (Helen Thomson), King, and Priscilla. I wonder if the framing was deliberate. Still, of all the people, if the only people in his life to get him were a Black man and two women, it’s definitely an interesting aspect to think about.

There are a few nits to pick, but they’re primarily technical. Some shots that weren’t explicitly filmed for slow-motion seem to force it in, and it can show, for example—but they’re not noticeable by most people. That snag aside, we have a technical and storytelling marvel that draws us in through the power of music and gives its viewers the gift of a consistently engaging Baz Luhrmann rollercoaster musical. 

Elvis” remixes the biopic like no other biopic could. Through its audiovisual marriage of the past and present—an Elvis biopic wrapped up in stylish modern packaging—it introduces today’s viewers to a whole host of trendsetting music of yesterday. And it’s not just Elvis; iconic Black artists like B. B. King, Arthur Crudup, and Big Mama Thorton influenced Presley’s musical stylings. Most of their music is featured prominently through covers and the like. Filmgoers have a massive opportunity to go back in time to explore everything, like a goldmine.

This may not have been possible were it in any other style and handled by any other director. Had the movie been more like “La Bamba” (1987)“The Man Who Knew Infinity” (2016), or “The Theory of Everything” (2014), I’m unsure it would be more than a forgettable Oscar fave. 

Luhrmann’s work and Butler’s career-best performance on “Elvis” elevate his persona to insane heights. The larger-than-life, superheroic storytelling will make viewers want to know more about his work, his influences, and what he meant to later artists and culture critics. 

“Elvis” is a towering movie, like the mythos around its titular hero’s real-life persona. And you just need to see it to know what I mean because no part of this review will ever be able to accurately describe what I’m trying to convey. It’s a masterpiece and a way better superhero origin story and tragedy than any other superhero film released this year.

This review was first published on The Black CAPE Magazine.