Maybe the problem is that the bar has been set so high with the Elton John biopic Rocket Man and also the Queen extravaganza Bohemian Rhapsody.
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis doesn’t come close to either – which is a huge shame because arguably Elvis is by far the most significant artist of the three.
Instead, we get a film which starts in a muddle, grows strongly, seriously sags in the middle – as Elvis himself did in later life – and then goes out with a bang. It finishes impressively and movingly, but the overall feeling – reflected in a bloated two hours and 40 minutes running time – is that it takes far too long getting there.
And again, that’s a shame because the material is fascinating, the tale told through the eyes of Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) as a near-death piece of self-justification: as far as he is concerned, the fact that he “gave the world Elvis” meant that he could no nothing wrong.
In fact, he fleeced him, sucking him dry financially throughout in a way which was absolutely monstrous – though the way Hanks plays him, you start to see him as a man in need of help every bit as much as punishment.
Parker is the man who came from nowhere, the man who invented his own past and also effectively invented Elvis. For all Hanks’ skill in delivering us this rather odious and extremely creepy guy, we don’t feel at the end that we actually know too much more about him.
Nor do we necessarily feel any closer to Elvis. For all it is a brilliant impersonation from Austin Butler who captures the quivering, smouldering brilliance, he doesn’t particularly let us see what is behind it all. Interesting Colonel Tom always refers to him as “the boy”. Maybe that’s what he was. Certainly there is naivety; there are also moments of rebellion; and there is also power. As Parker says in his narration, Elvis made girls feel feelings they really weren’t sure they ought to be enjoying quite so much.
But what was behind the act? Are we any the wiser? Probably not.
However, we are certainly left with a huge sense of sadness, that someone somehow couldn’t have seen what was happening to this increasing bloated star, cruelly fed drugs simply to keep him performing longer.
We see the worst kind of abuse. Parker spots his chance and latches on to him; Elvis’ mother drinks herself to death at an early age, unable to cope; his father lives on but is incapable of acting his own son’s best interest.
It’s a ghastly tale.
But oddly the most moving moment comes when we see the actual Elvis towards the end, with a clip of his live performance of Unchained Melody (Rapid City June 21, 1977), captured just weeks before his death.
He looks so awful, huge, sweaty, just awful. But when he sings, wow. The power, the charisma, the twinkle. It was all still there.
And that smile at the end. It’s heart-breaking. Barely a month later he was dead. And goodness, he looks so young.