The King returns in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”
Updated: Jan 9
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Austin Butler, practically an unknown got the role of Elvis Presley from his emotional audition tape he made himself singing “Unchained Melody.”
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 2022; PG-13 for substance abuse, strong profanity, suggestive material, and smoking; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: The 22-minute “Bigger Than Life: The Story of Elvis” featurette
THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS ago, I stood next to the grave of Elvis Presley photographing two weeping women during their Graceland pilgrimage for Elvis’ birthday on January 8th. At the time I was a staff photographer for the Memphis Commerical Appeal newspaper, while several thousand fans from around the globe gathered at the estate to pay their respects to the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Since opening to the public in 1982, Graceland has hosted over 20 million visitors. The attraction is still going strong as Australian writer/producer/director Baz Luhrmann (“The Great Gatsby,” “Moulin Rouge!”), known for his larger-than-life onscreen spectacles, decided to explore the life and music of Elvis Presley.
“I’ve always had a profound fascination with American pop culture … and if you want to explore America in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s – Elvis is your guy,” Luhrmann says during the featurette “Bigger than Life: The Story of Elvis.” He was determined not to do a traditional biopic, since “Elvis is the gateway into American culture.”
(1&2) Dutch native Colonel Tom Parker played by Tom Hanks, hears Elvis’ first Sun Records 45 rpm record purchased by Jamie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a member of Parker’s traveling Country Hayride tour. (3-5) October 1954, Elvis performs at the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium for the Louisiana Hayride radio program. It’s considered to be his first big break.
Austin Butler, practically unknown, talks a lot like Elvis. He can also play the guitar and piano, and got the role from the emotional audition tape he made himself singing “Unchained Melody.” “What fascinated me was stripping away the icon and finding how he was when nobody was around,” he says. The Southern California native was discovered by an acting scout while visiting the Orange County fairgrounds. Once spotted and signed, the teen began landing bit parts over the last decade. “Elvis embodies the American Dream – coming from nothing and then being able to have your dreams come true,” Butler says. He approached the role with a deep need to “do Elvis justice and to honor his family.” Overall, his performance is terrific – full of electricity, innocence, sexuality, and vulnerability.
The story is narrated by Elvis’ dictatorial manager, the proselytizing and distasteful Colonel Tom Parker. He’s played by Tom Hanks, definitely playing against type. Parker ended up squeezing over 50 percent of Elvis’ earnings for himself, convincing the Tupelo, Mississippi, native to join the U.S. Army after being drafted in 1957 at the height of his young career. Once out of the military, Parker steered Elvis toward a decade-long series of lowbrow Hollywood teen movies that nearly killed his music career.
Principal photography took place in Queensland, Australia, with a production budget of over $80 million, earning over $284 million in worldwide box office receipts. It received favorable reviews from critics and over 90 percent ratings with audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. If you remember, Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson were the first publicly announced celebrities who came down with COVID-19, which they got while traveling to Australia for the production. Hanks compared Elvis’ influence on music and society to a comet crashing into Earth, creating a "shift in climate after the comet landed in Memphis in 1955.”
Luhrmann’s three-act pop opera jumps across three decades, from Elvis’ childhood to a member of Parker’s traveling Country Hayride tour, to major RCA recording star, military service, movie career, his marriage to Priscilla Presley (Auggie Olivia DeJonge), and the death of his much-loved mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson). It continues with Elvis’ connection to Beale Street, the home of the Memphis Blues, where he played with the likes of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) and ‘Big Mama’ Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). Plus, his comeback launched from a 1968 NBC special, and his final years as a Vegas headliner, with a 30-piece orchestra and a dozen backup singers.
(1) Elvis with his much-loved mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson). (2) Colonel Parker convinces Elvis to join his traveling Hayride tour. (3&4) Elvis returns to his newly purchased Graceland estate south of downtown Memphis. (5&6) Elvis enjoyed the lively nightlife of Beale Street, where he met Blues musician B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and other artists including Sister Rosetta Tharpe and ‘Big Mama’ Thornton.
The enclosed Blu-ray and digital platforms house all of the bonus features including “Bigger Than Life,” with cast and crew interviews, and the director who says, “Everyone’s got their opinion about Elvis and there are a lot of great what they call ‘tribute artists’ out there. They impersonate Elvis so well that you go, ‘Gee, that could be Elvis.’ But you see, we’re not in the impersonation business. That’s an art form. We’re in the interpretation business.”
Before the cameras started rolling in 2019, Butler and Luhrmann visited Graceland and Elvis’ hometown including the Tupelo hardware store where his mother went to buy a bicycle for her young son. That was the plan, but in the end, she buys him a guitar instead. “There’s a humility to Elvis, an incredible shyness and a kind of insecurity,” the director says. “The paradox of this incredibly handsome man with an amazing musical gift.” Butler spent close to three years after being selected before he made the final scene as Elvis. “I just started reading and watching everything on Elvis, and on his friends and his relationships.”
Additional featurettes include: “The Music and Artists behind Elvis,” describing how production chose from the 800 songs Elvis recorded from Country, Rockabilly, Blues, and Gospel to determine what would land in the film. Butler provided the vocals for the early songs, while they blended his vocals with Elvis for the later works. “Fit for a King: The Style of Elvis” highlights costume design; “Viva Australia: Recreating the Iconic Locations” involves turning the Aussie bush into Graceland and building the huge Beale Street set and the ivory International Hilton Ballroom, all designed by Luhrmann’s four-time Oscar-winning wife Catherine Martin, who’s also a producer on the film.
(1-3) Elvis performs in front of 14,000 at Memphis’ Russwood Ballpark on July 4, 1956, just days after appearing on the Steve Allen Show. He wore a black suit with a red tie and red socks, singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Hound Dog” and others. (4) Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1957 and entered the U.S. Army on March 24, 1958. He was deployed with an armored division near Frankfurt, Germany, where he met Priscilla Beaulieu (Auggie Olivia DeJonge), in 1959. She was only 14 at the time, and they tied the knot in Las Vegas on May 1, 1967.
Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker (“Mulan,” “Hidden Figures”) dialed up the visuals using the Alexa 65 camera (2.39:1 aspect ratio), with its spectacular 6.5K resolution, for the majority of filming on the back lot and soundstages at Australia’s Village Roadshow Studios. The final act was captured with an anamorphic lens and the earlier scenes with a spherical lens. All the digital files, including the VFX shots, were all mastered in 4K for one of the best-looking 4K discs of the year. The presentation is super-refined, with detailed close-ups to wide shots of Graceland and Beale Street, and hundreds of screaming fans during concert scenes. Plus, a light dusting of post-production grain was applied for a more film-like experience.
The 4K disc is coded with standard HDR10, plus the more advanced Dolby Vision and HDR10+ for more detailed toning from scene to scene. The top maximum light level peaks at 429 nits and the average light level at 116 nits. Lighting is beautiful, showcasing Butler’s onstage performances and his incredible eyes. Black levels are super dark without losing detail, while mid-tones and highlights are controlled. The early years are toned in a cooler palette of browns and blues, and by the time Elvis hits the Vegas stage, he’s bathed in saturated warm tones.
The 4K, Blu-ray, and digital are coded with the eight-channel Dolby Atmos, providing a wide and open soundstage with music cues and effects pushed to height speakers – especially during live performances. Deep bass response has its moments – especially on Beale Street scenes, which incorporate flashes of hip-hop to hook younger viewers.
The lineup of songs includes: “Suspicious Minds,” “Cotton Candy Land” by Chris Issak and Stevie Nicks, “Vegas” by Doja Cat, “The King and I” by Eminem and CeeLo Green, “Craw-Fever,” “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body,” “Don’t Fly Away,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Kacey Musgraves, “Product of the Ghetto” by Nardo Wick, “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Hound Dog” by Shonka Dukureh, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” by Yola, as well as “Trouble,” “Edge of Reality,” “Power of My Love,” “Burning Love,” “That’s All Right,” “It’s Only Love,” “In the Ghetto” and “Unchained Melody.”
Luhrmann is now considering releasing a 4-hour version, which would be a nice addition to the flashy and highly stylized theatrical cut. I wouldn't be surprised if "Elvis" receives a handful of Oscar nominations early next year.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1&2) After his U.S. Army service Parker pushed Elvis toward Hollywood, where he made over 25 movies by 1969, which nearly derailed his music career. (3-6) Considered his '68 Comeback Special aired by NBC on December 3, 1968. The show was initially planned as a Christmas Special by Parker, but producer Bob Finkel and director Steve Binder changed the direction to appeal to younger viewers.
Las Vegas International Hotel
(1-3) On July 31, 1969, Elvis kicked off a seven-year-long residency at the Las Vegas International Hotel, where he made $1 million per year. (4) Elvis and Priscilla were married for six years and she insisted there was no ill will between them in the years after their divorce. Both were co-parents for their daughter Lisa Marie.