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Flix at :48: 'Elvis' combines spectacular visuals with middling dialogue

A poster for the Elvis movie features Austin Butler in black leather, holding a red guitar.
https://elvis.warnerbros.com/

Australian writer/director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, 2001) loves to put on a gigantically opulent show. Like me in the vodka section of a liquor store, he just can't help himself. He wants so much sparkle and so much playfulness that his cinematic touch often lacks emotional connection (like in his 2013 adaptation, The Great Gatsby). But I'm relieved to say the newly released Elvis is better than I expected.

The more conventional idea for a biopic on the rock & roll legend is side-stepped by having this story narrated, not by Elvis himself, but by a lesser-known figure, his manager. Colonel Tom Parker (played by a crafty Tom Hanks), a small-time, variety show, carnival organizer hitches his wagon to Elvis in the 1950s and deftly manipulates the singer's decisions and career path until the 1970s. Using this perspective from Col. Tom Parker gives this Elvis film a darker edge juxtaposing nefarious ideas to make money against the glamour of fame.

Parts of Elvis are brilliant. Gracefully mixed editing layers different moments of Elvis' life together to create dizzyingly succinct whirlwinds of childhood wonder, musical exposure and live performances that were provocative for their time. This film style of frenetically fusing different musical genres together with different memories helps illustrate why Elvis was so huge. He presented a unique blend of country music, gospel music and rhythm & blues from the many Black musicians who surrounded him in his younger years. Because the musical scenes are so dramatic and big, the quieter more intimate scenes feel imbalanced or less thoughtful. Actor Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood, 2019) is sexy and magnetic as the title role in the performance scenes. But in the scenes with just dialogue, he's noticeably wooden and not tapping into the full emotional depth that's possible.

At a running time of two hours and 39 minutes, this PG-13 film has a lot. Like the fusing of different musical genres, it fuses visual film genres too! In some parts it looks like a superhero comic book. Some parts are like an MTV music video. Sometimes three-dimensional text is placed in a scene, and the montages abound with old-fashioned 8-millimeter film textures and layers of newspaper headlines. All of that looks cool, but Elvis could have had a more lasting emotional impact if some of the sensational visuals were retrained and more care was given to the dialogue. It's not amazing, but it's good.

Casey T. Allen is a native of Utah who graduated from Utah State University with a Bachelor's degree in English in 2007. He has worked in many capacities throughout USU campus and enjoys his time at UPR to continually exercise his writing.