Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building

Elvis (12, 100 Minutes)

Biopics are a passion project for some directors and a poisoned chalice for others. Putting the backstories of our most famous musicians on screen has, in recent years, turned out to be a hit or miss affair.

We’ve had some golden attempts, just look at Renee Zellwegger in Judy, Taron Egerton in Rocketman and the six leads – Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw – who each play Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.

But sometimes even a decent actor is unable save a film. Just look at the questionable ‘hit’ Bohemian Rhapsody.

You’re probably wondering which way Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis swings. Well, there are times where it certainly wobbles but, when all is said and done, this is a truly magnificent interpretation of the life and soul of ‘The King’.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Elvis’s story is told through the eyes of his manger, Col. Tom Parker, played wonderfully by Tom Hanks, who is “not a colonel, not a Tom and certainly not a Parker”. Carnival showman Andreas van Kuijk, a Dutch immigrant who had adopted the name Tom Parker after entering the US illegally in 1929, hears talk of a rebellious musician capable of sending his female fans into a frenzy.

Knowing he can profit well off this young scallywag, Parker makes a pact with the young former truck driver Presley – a magnificent performance from Austin Butler – to promote his career in return for 25 per cent of his entire earnings.

We follow them from the hayride gigs of the mid fifties filled with government censorship of rock n’ roll amid racial segregation, to Elvis’s spell in the military, then through the sixties with Elvis’ movie career, his marriage to Priscilla and a strong desire to take back control of his image, and finally into the dark, torturous Vegas years where Parker pulls off his ultimate manipulation to have Presley pay for his gambling debts through a neverending hotel residency, leading to the star’s growing dependency on prescription drugs, his divorce and eventual death on the toilet.

In one way, this is a story about a young man born in abject poverty who becomes perhaps the most famous star there’s ever been. But at the core, it’s a tale of abuse. The Fagin-esque Parker grooms Elvis from the first night they meet, acting as a second father to him, insisting he has the naive superstar’s best interests at heart.

He has the singer wrapped around his little finger (the reason he never performed outside of the US apart from one early gig in Canada was put down to Elvis’s fear of flying, but was actually because as an illegal immigrant his manager feared not being allowed back into the country on their return) and, as Presley gets older and wiser, you can see the fear rising as Parker realises his control is slipping away.

Elvis is not a human being to this man, he is a valuable commodity no one else can have. A wife, child, friends are a threat that could bring Parker down.

Butler is stupendous. The ultimate portrayal of Elvis. Hilarious that the actor now appears to be stuck with the accent, though one can’t blame him when you consider the effort that has gone into this.

But one can’t help but wonder whether this is a film about Elvis or the colonel. The lines are blurred and it often feels like the two entities are fighting for control much like the reality.

A good chunk of this film is a success and it’s one that will, without a doubt, go down in cinema history. Will Butler get award nominations? It would be surprising if he didn’t. But there is a pet peeve I had before even sitting down to watch the film – Baz Luhrmann – the very definition of what I would call a ‘messy director’.

I didn’t mind Moulin Rouge and, as someone who worships at the shrine of Shakespeare, I’m certainly not fond of his hideous Romeo & Juliet. Filmmaking is like painting a gorgeous landscape, so there’s no reason Luhrmann should be throwing paint at his canvas and refusing to clean up the mess on the floor.

His films are so wild, so out there, so wacky that it’s impossible to keep up. Even in the first ten minutes of Elvis I found myself screaming “slow down!”. Luckily it did, and it’s all the better for it.

Calm down, Baz. Stop screaming. A little decorum wouldn’t go amiss.

RATING: 8/10

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