The best movie I've seen this year — and one of the most enjoyable times I've had at the movies in a while — is now on one of the best streaming services. And you should make plans to watch it as soon as possible.
I'm talking about Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, which has now arrived on HBO Max after a stint in theaters earlier this summer. And believe me, it feels weird for me to be typing the words "Elvis" and "great movie" in close proximity to one another.
My primary exposure to Elvis Presley came initially through the movies he made, not the songs he recorded. And I confess to being fascinated by Elvis' silver screen career in a "can't look away from the disaster" sort-of way. Between 1956 and 1969, Elvis starred in 31 movies. With the exception of Jailhouse Rock (1957), these Elvis movies are not very good, running the gamut from middling to maddening to "Oh man, he's playing a race car driver again?"
The Elvis biopic from director Baz Luhrmann avoids the pitfalls that befell Elvis Presley the actor to give us a movie that's compelling right from the start through the end of its 218-minute run time. It's a familiar story even if you can't quote chapter and verse of Elvis' life story, but it's told in an engaging, inventive way, with some stellar performances.
Give the credit to Baz Luhrmann, whose hyper-stylized approach to movies can divide audiences. But in telling Elvis' tale, that over-the-top visual style serves the subject. Elvis Presley cut a larger-than-life figure so the movie dedicated to telling his life story should be just as ostentatious.
Clever narrative touches abound. Elvis' origin story becomes a literal comic book. the section of the film that introduces Elvis' lost years as a misued matinee idol is introduced with a cheesy credit sequence that could have come straight out of movies like Girls! Girls! Girls! or Fun in Acapulco. The Vegas years are suitably grim and nightmarish. Luhrmann is using every tool at his disposal and it works.
Elvis' music dominates the picture, as you'd expect, whether it's integral to the narrative or just in the background. In a touch that's typical of Luhrmann's movies, some Elvis songs are infused with more modern hip-hop influences. It's a technique I hated in Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby from a decade ago, but in Elvis, it works, emphasizing how certain songs stay with us forever, evolving over time and influencing future generations.
If you're asking yourself why make a movie about a pop singer from half-a-century ago, the music that infuses Elvis — both the originals and the remixes — provide you with an answer.
All of this would be a 2-hour-plus music video without great performances, and Austin Butler gives us a terrific turn as Elvis, disappearing into the role. Any biopic runs the danger of interpretation becoming impersonation — especially in a movie about Elvis Presley, who's spawned his own cottage industry of Elvis look-a-likes. Butler gives us a flesh-and-blood Elvis, a man whose passion for music and fierce loyalty to the people around him wind up in conflict with one another by the movie's end.
I'm less sold on Tom Hanks' performance as Colonel Tom Parker, the malevolent manager of Elvis who found a way to squeeze every last dime out of his protege. Hanks has to do some heavy lifting — he's not only the villain of the piece, but also the narrator, and he's on screen nearly as much as the title character. It's a fine job — this is Tom Hanks, after all — but you never forget for a moment that it's him under all those prosthetics and that Dutch accent.
Perhaps the best recommendation for Elvis comes from my daughter, a tween with only a passing familiarity with some of Elvis' songs and who knows the singer-actor largely due to my fascination with the absurd 1960s movie Clambake. She came with me to watch in the theater, not exactly sure what to expect and somewhat wary of the movie's not-kid-friendly run time.
During one of Butler's musical performances as Elvis, I looked over at my daughter and saw her tapping her feet to the music. Other times, she would lean forward in her chair. And afterwards, on the way home, she couldn't stop talking about the movie.
Elvis truly is a movie that both fans and novices can appreciate. Make sure it's part of your streaming rotation while you can.
Next: Elvis isn't the only movie landing on streaming services. Check out the seven best new movies to stream this weekend and these are the 5 Netflix movies to watch before they leave in September. And here's why you should forget Marvel as there are Disney Plus movies you should really watch.