This is the movie Tom Hanks was shooting in Australia when he and his wife got Covid in the early days of the lockdown in 2020.
It’s the Elvis Presley story told from the POV of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Hanks. It’s not your average musical biopic (although few are these days). It’s the latest extravaganza from the famously imaginative Baz Luhrmann.
And it is an extravaganza, although I have coined my own Variety-speak term: it’s an exaggerama!
Everything is exaggerated, in Luhrmann’s typically manic style. Especially Elvis’s on-stage behaviour. We all know that his hip-wiggling and sexy posturing was radical for the times and that it prompted negative reaction from conservative and religious elements in America, but in Luhrmann’s hands Elvis’s early performances are almost pornographic, ditto the reactions of his female fans.
Nevertheless, I’ve gotta hand it to him. I’ve always been a bit wary of Baz Luhrmann’s penchant for dazzlingly discombobulating special effects – the rapid-cut editing, the camera zooming, the hallucinogenically enhanced visuals and audio – but in Elvis he’s on top of his turbocharged game and has managed to pull off a hugely entertaining version of one of the great musical stories of our time.
And therein lies the movie’s greatest virtue: the seriousness Luhrmann accords to the role of music in Elvis’s story. He may have been the white boy who could sing like a black man, as Colonel Parker famously put his winning formula, but Elvis was no manufactured act. Behind the sultry handsome looks and the raw masculine virility of his live act was a young man with an abiding passion for the music of his time and a sure aesthetic sense of how he wanted to adopt and adapt it.
With the exception of Tom Hanks as Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis (both of whom are terrific) all the main white roles are played by Australians. How much of this casting was down to the global Covid lockdown I don’t know. My companion detected some accent slippage, but I thought they all did a good job.
The Aussies are for the most part relative unknowns, except for Richard Roxburgh as Elvis’s father Vernon, and David Wenham as Hank Snow, the Canadian country music singer with whose band Elvis toured as a support act in the early days.
Elvis’ adored mother Gladys is played by Helen Thomson. His wife Priscilla Presley is played by Olivia de Jonge. (For those who do that ‘what’s he/she been in?’ thing, which includes me, see the helpful glossary below.)
The black music legends of the time who so influenced Elvis – Big Mama Thornton, BB King, Little Richard – are all here, and all are played by American actors who are so good you wonder if they aren’t somehow digitally revived versions of the original. Luhrmann plays fast and loose with historical and technical accuracy in presenting their music but it’s nothing short of genius the way he embeds songs like Hound Dog and That’s Alright Mama in the story, amplifying their power with modern beats and ambience to trace their evolution from their soul, jazz and rhythm ‘n blues bedrock to their reincarnation as Elvis hits.
I found myself for once not griping about the anachronism of it all. I was too busy grooving away to those irresistible classics, not to mention Heartbreak Hotel, Jailhouse Rock and Crawfish, the latter an underrated moody masterpiece that my younger companion hadn’t even heard of!
One teensy gripe: where were my faves Flaming Star and His Latest Flame?! I suppose Baz is entitled to his favourites too.
I’d love to know how much of Elvis was shot in Australia and how much in America, because the scenes in the Deep South look very convincing indeed.
A quick survey of other crits of Elvis turned up the words volcanic, jittery, horny and tireless. I go along with all those, and I mean them in the nicest possible way. Bravo Baz.
Helpful Glossary of Aussie actors in Elvis
- Helen Thompson (Gladys Presley) was in the Jane Campion drama Top of the Lake (with Elisabeth Moss). You might also have seen her in Blue Heelers and Bad Mothers.
- Olivia de Jonge (Priscilla Presley) was most recently seen in the true-crime drama The Staircase.
- Dacre Montgomery plays Steve Binder, a director who (in Luhrmann’s words) “was responsible for the iconic 1968 television special, often referred to as Elvis’ comeback.” He saw the potential to break Elvis out of the cheesy money-making commercial stunts that the Colonel had him doing and get him back to his raw musical potential. You might know Montgomery as Billy Hargrove in the Netflix fantasy drama Stranger Things.
- Luke Bracey plays Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ close friend since their teenage years and a member of Elvis’ infamous ‘Memphis Mafia’. Bracey started out in Home & Away before getting roles in Point Break (2015), Little Fires Everywhere and Hacksaw Ridge.