To be honest, I wasn’t very excited when I heard they were making a new Elvis movie. I questioned the intentions of those involved considering his story had already been told many times. I just imagined the studio executives seeing the success of movies like Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody and Walk the Line eager to cash in on the King with another musical biopic.
One of my first introductions to Elvis’ story was the 1990 miniseries starring Michael St. Gerard. I was a huge fan of this series and recall recording this onto VHS from the television. Interestingly, Michael also played Elvis in the movie “Great Balls of Fire”(which sparked my interest in playing that boogie woogie piano) and in a 1993 episode of Quantum Leap (my favorite TV show at the time). Shortly after that I recall renting the 1979 John Carpenter film “Elvis” starring Kurt Russell. I thought Russell had a good look and did a great job capturing Elvis’ voice and mannerism. Having said that, I was still new to the world of Elvis so my opinion on this film might be different if I were to watch it today – decades later.
The last two recent portrayals of Elvis I’ve seen were disappointing and both came out in 2005. While Walk the Line was focused on Johnny Cash’s story, the casting of Elvis was terrible. I don’t even know who the actor is and I haven’t bothered to check. It was as if they’d forgotten to cast the part and when it came time to shoot the scenes they grabbed one of the extras standing around.
The other letdown was the CBS movie starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Not many people know this but there was an open casting call in 2004 for the part of Elvis. I was fortunate enough to have flown out to LA for a special audition and, while this is a story for another time, I had been called back, test filmed, and supposedly just lost out to Mr. Meyers because they finally decided to go with a known actor.
This turned out to be a blessing as I felt the final product was terrible.
So, here we are in 2022 and my expectations are low. Maybe it’s because most of the time when a movie, TV show or commercial references Elvis it’s over-the-top or purposely cartoonish to get an easy laugh. I know I was judging a book by it’s cover but I wasn’t impressed with the announcement of Austin Butler as Elvis (I lost all faith in casting directors after they chose Alden Ehrenreich to play a young Harrison Ford/Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story). I understand when you’re portraying a character that people are extremely familiar with that you need to be a good enough actor to capture their voice and mannerisms but that’s not enough for me if the whole visual part is lacking (Yes, I’m still half talking about the young Han Solo casting here). My first thoughts were that Austin looked more like a mix between John Travolta and David Schwimmer (“Ross” from Friends) than Elvis. And, no, it’s not that I think I would have been a better choice. Though if they had thought to call me they would have found that not only was I available, but I already have one of those novelty Elvis licenses which could have been helpful for the prop department.
My first impression of the film was that the pace was frantic as if it was made for an audience with ADHD. Maybe that’s unavoidable when you’re trying to cover twenty plus years of someone’s life in a single film but at times it felt like I was watching an extended preview. There wasn’t enough time to settle into a scene before you jumped in time somewhere else. Either this got better as the film progressed or I got used to this pacing.
Was I wrong about Austin Bulter? Overall, yes. He clearly did his homework and closely studied the archived footage of Elvis. Those familiar with the original clips of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle show or “Jailhouse Rock” during the ‘68 Comeback Special would have found Butler’s movements spot on. The meticulous recreations of sets and costuming really sold these scenes. But as for looking like Elvis, there were times he looked great and other times he didn’t. However, the costumes were incredible and I certainly envied him for getting to wear such authentic recreations – and there was an impressive amount of outfits featured.
Tom Hanks being cast as Colonel Tom Parker felt like adding a featured rap artist breakdown in your song to give you “Street Cred”. Still, who isn’t a fan of Tom Hanks? Typically lending his talent to a film is a boost but his ridiculous accent was a distraction for me. It’s not like they didn’t have reference material for the way the Colonel spoke so I don’t understand why they took this particular liberty. However, the film, and Hank’s performance successfully portrayed the Colonel as the snake I believe he was.
The last complaint I’ll make about casting was Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla. She’s a beautiful woman and a fine actress but she looked nothing like Priscilla to me. I recall just shaking my head when she first appeared on screen and softly saying, “no” aloud to myself.
I really liked the song selections. There were many of the expected hits like “Hound Dog”, “Suspicious Minds” and “Heartbreak Hotel” but I appreciated that they featured some more obscure tunes like “I’m Coming Home”, “Power of My Love” and “Any Day Now”. When it came to “If I Can Dream” I had goosebumps – but I always do when I hear that song. The film featured a mixture of Elvis’ performances and Austin singing and while I would have rather they just used Elvis, Butler did a decent job on most of the songs he performed.
Maybe being so familiar with the source material here made me too critical. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the film as I certainly did. In fact, I intend to watch it again soon. But some of the artistic liberties stood out – though this is common when making biopics or other films based on true events. To keep this spoiler-free I won’t go into all of these creative liberties taken as much as I’d like to. I reminded myself that it’s the purpose the documentary to tell “just the facts” whereas the film’s purpose is to tell a good story. I loved the film Ray and being unfamiliar with the facts of his life allowed me to enjoy the film and not question every scene and every bit of dialogue’s authenticity.
Therefore, I must consider the film through someone else’s eyes – someone that hasn’t studied this character so closely. For the general public and especially those unfamiliar with Elvis’s life and music, this film is a must-see and captures the essence of this incredible phenomenon that was Elvis. It’s a great introduction to the King of Rock and Roll for the youth of today. And for them, it overwrites the corny, cheesy caricature of Elvis that, for many, may have been their only exposure to this legend. I once questioned whether this movie was necessary and after seeing it – despite my nitpicking – I believe it definitely was.