In a crowded summer movie season, Warner Bros. has bet big on their musical biopic Elvis, starring Austin Butler as the title character and Tom Hanks in the role of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ business manager, with the story exploring the rise and fall of the king of rock n roll. Notably, Elvis was one of the first films to be shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as star Tom Hanks was diagnosed with COVID-19 while filming and production shut down from March 2020 and did not resume production until September 2020.
While Warner Bros. had several high-profile tentpole films that could have gotten the summer release date, the studio opted to put The Batman and Fantastic Beast: The Secrets of Dumbledore in the spring months, leaving Elvis as their first big movie of the summer. This is not just a standard biopic they have on their hands, but something Warner Bros. sees as being a cross-appeal blockbuster film in a crowded summer movie season. Even after Warner Brothers’ previous summer musical spectacular In The Heights failed to connect with audiences, Elvis seems to be making a lot more waves with critics and audiences alike for good and ill, eyeing the top box office spot.
Yet, why this film? What is it about Elvis that has turned it from just another movie (in a long line of music biopics) to one of the most anticipated films of the summer? A combination of the legendary status of its subject, a star director making his comeback, how musical biopics have grown in popularity, and how the film is appealing to a different audience have all helped position Elvis as a potential breakout smash hit.
One of the Most Famous Musical Artists Finally Gets a Biopic
Elvis is, without question, one of the most famous musical artists of all time that has stayed popular across multiple generations. His music is still popular, and has been featured in multiple media (fittingly, Elvis will open in theaters the same weekend that Lilo and Stitch did 20 years prior and introduced Elvis music to a whole new generation of fans).
While plenty of actors have played Elvis in a number of projects (including Val Kilmer, Michael Shannon, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Jack White, just to name a few), Elvis has never big given the big-screen biopic treatment that musicians like Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jim Morrison, or Tupac Shakur had. While John Carpenter, of all people, directed a made-for-TV movie about Elvis in 1979 starring Kurt Russell, the 2022 film marks the first time someone has tried to do a full-fledged cinematic biopic. With how influential Elvis has been on music, this film feels like a long time coming.
Baz Luhrmann’s First Film in 9 Years
Much like how Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness marked the first film from Sam Raimi in nine years following 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, Elvis marks the return of director Baz Luhrmann to the big screen in also nine years. with his last film being 2013’s The Great Gatsby (though he was the co-creator of the Netflix series The Get Down and directed the pilot episode in 2016). Luhrmann’s return to the big screen is highly anticipated as the director has a very distinct cinematic style and energy to him, and has found great success by taking traditional stories and giving them youthful energy.
Luhrmann loves making parallels between the modern and classical, showcasing a classic time-period through a modern aesthetic seen in his modern-day re-imagining of Shakespeare with Romeo + Juliet while also maintaining the original Shakespearian language. He also made a big bombastic classic Hollywood musical like Moulin Rouge but by re-imagining pop songs to create the soundtrack, and took one of the most well known American literature classics The Great Gatsby that many students are required to read in school and zeroed in on the tragic young love story that feels at home in a number of YA fiction today.
With Elvis, Luhrmann is going for a conventional narrative, with the relationship between Elvis and his manager as the central dynamic, but also brings in musical artists like Doja Cat, Eminem, Diplo, Stevie Nicks, Jack White (who played Elvis in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). This array of artists covering many genres including pop, rock, jazz, and hip hop underlines Luhrmann’s point by illustrating the radical impact Presley has had on music.
Musical Biopics Have Seen A Rise In Popularity By Making Stars
The musical biopic has gotten even more popular in recent years, particularly with the box office and critical reaction to 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and 2019’s Rocketman. The latter two films gained considerable awards attention for their two lead stars, with Rami Malek winning Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury. Audiences clearly love seeing the story of their favorite artist on screen with a perfect chance to see their favorite songs play out. Hearing a particular favorite song by an artist in their biopic is designed to give the audience the same thrill and excitement of spotting a reference in a comic book superhero movie.
The role of Elvis was a highly coveted part, with Ansel Elgort, Harry Styles, Miles Teller, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson all considered before Butler eventually landed the role. Butler had been a child actor, and through his career had several bit parts in popular television series like Arrow, Switched At Birth, and Zoey 101. After working with high-profile directors like Kevin Smith on Yoga Hosers and Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Butler’s casting in Elvis felt like the moment his career was about to make the leap to the next level. He already has been cast in the coveted role of Feyd-Rautha in Dune 2, and now all eyes are on him to see if he can earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor like Joaquin Phoenix for Walk The Line, and maybe win the same way that Jamie Foxx did for Ray and Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody.
Films Aimed At Older Audiences Are Making A Comeback
While mentioned previously that Baz Luhrmann has a particular flair for imbuing stories with a youthful energy that makes the movies appealing to younger audiences, Elvis’ primary audience is older moviegoers, likely ones that remember Elvis when he was alive or were kids when the famous musician passed away. While older audiences were originally one of the hardest demographics to get to return to the theaters following the COVID-19 pandemic, the incredible box office success Top Gun: Maverick has had over the past month shows that the right film will draw out audiences for a trip to the theaters, particular one that is appealing to something that audiences can’t seem to find elsewhere.
Considering the subject and connection to one of the most famous musicians in the world, the presence of Tom Hanks, who was one of the most reliable draws for audiences in movies back in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the fact that the movie is being positioned as an early potential Oscar film for viewers, Elvis is very much the blockbuster event for audiences who want something different from superheroes, action films, and animated movies.