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Elvis is Baz Luhrmann’s rhinestoned homage to JFK. This is breath-taking cinema.

The dictionary definition of Icon reads:

“A person regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.”

Of course, veneration comes at a price. Hollywood will feast on an icon’s carcass for as long as it can. Hollywood has fixed its beady gaze on Elvis Presley.

Luckily, Presley’s story hasn’t yet been adapted out of all recognition. The star’s life is often explored in documentary form. Recently, The King (2017) and Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018) placed Elvis at the centre of America’s struggle with cultural diversity. To find a straight biopic, we must travel back to 1979 for John Carpenter’s made-for-TV Elvis the Movie. Tagline: “The King lives on!”

Has Hollywood’s beady eye finally been well-trained?

Director Baz Luhrmann can himself make a case for iconic status. He is a representative symbol for a distinctive style of glossy, camp, dramatic cinema. Has there ever been a better pairing of director and subject?

And true to Luhrmann’s body of work, Elvis is one of the least subtle biopics ever committed to film. Its two and half hours felt like a sensory mugging as it travels the breadth of Presley’s life. Elvis proceeds at a breakneck pace. Luhrmann applies his theatricality to the film’s narrative and in post-production. Every cinematic tic in existence is employed. There are screen wipes, spinning records, newspapers, film footage and repetitious song lines. Elvis flies back and forth, somehow making time to stop and marvel at the King’s crotch thrusting.

Elvis is not for the faint of heart, mixing the political hyperbole of Oliver Stone‘s JFK with the relentlessness of Mad Max: Fury Road. It is the cinematic equivalent of using a guitar to slice a rainbow and watch it bleed sexually-charged rhinestones. We feel both what it is to love Elvis and to be Elvis. This is breath-taking cinema.

That pacing means Elvis glosses over some subjects and clumsily addresses others. It doesn’t make clear that Presley romanced Priscilla when she was only 14. In fact, the film doesn’t focus on Elvis’s love life at all (perhaps that’s why it has the Presley family’s blessing). It does at least try to explore Elvis’s friendship with BB King and his cultural appropriation of R&B music.

But what elevates Elvis to legendary status? It’s two leads. Surprisingly, Presley has second billing in his own life story. Luhrmann hasn’t always chosen the best fit for his leads (Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jay Gatsby comes to mind). In Elvis, he strikes gold. Austin Butler was a Disney kid languishing in middling sitcoms until Quentin Tarantino gave him a small, meaty role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Butler looks and acts the part from teenager to bloated forty-year-old. He also delivers fantastic voice work. The pink pout, high quiff and squeezed black leather showcase the idiosyncrasies in Elvis’s style. If this doesn’t put Butler’s star in the ascendant, nothing will.

But what about that second lead? The most startling reveal in Elvis is how it could be renamed Colonel Parker. Tom Hanks, so adored, is cast as the film’s villain. Presley’s manager here is seen as an evil ringmaster of dubious European ethnic origin. His bloated gut is almost as large as his gambling problem. Hanks is hamming it up but he’s so compelling playing evil it’s difficult to look away.

There are few biopics as brash and compelling as Elvis. Everyone should go and see it. Maybe just the once, though.

Elvis hits cinemas on 24th June 2022.

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