Elvis and the Problem with Music Biopics

Elvis and the Problem with Music Biopics

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to watch the relatively new biopic Elvis in theaters. This film, as is implied by the title, explores the life of the King of Rock, Elvis Presley, taking audiences from his start as a singer in the 1950s to his untimely passing in the 1970s. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, it stars Austin Butler in the titular role and Tom Hanks as Elvis’ manipulative manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker.

Firstly, the stand-out aspect of Elvis as a film that makes it truly shine is the lead performance as Presley given by Butler. As many before me have said, this will probably be his break-out role. Austin Butler was simply terrific as the musical legend he portrayed. He brings tremendous gravitas and acting range to the lead character and honestly provides the opposite of a cheap impression. Instead, he gives the audience a chance to see a true professional actor at work as he fully embodies Elvis Presley. Tom Hanks as Tom Parker does a solid job with his role. He plays the classic “sleazy manager” character quite sufficiently, although his Dutch accent and numerous prosthetics are a bit distracting at the start of the film. However, I personally ended up getting used to them by the end.

Luhrmann’s direction is superb as well. Already known for flashy, stylistically bold films such as Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013), the famed Australian director lends his trademark style to Elvis as well. The film has just enough saturation to make each distinct shade of color pop, and each major set piece or scene from the movie feels grand and exciting, much like Elvis Presley’s persona was in real life. Unlike with other music biopics, Luhrmann makes sure to take the viewer inside Elvis’ concert audiences. The viewer is meant to genuinely feel the importance and excitement of seeing Presley onstage. This makes the film much more engaging than it would have been otherwise.

Where Elvis falters as a film, however, is in its plot and runtime. The movie is two hours and 39 minutes long, and I felt its length. The reason for the runtime being as long as it is is understandable: Elvis’ great ambition is to tell its title character’s whole life story within one film. Yet was this the best choice? The film gives itself a very limited structure to abide by through its ambition. The audience has a high probability of already knowing what they are going to witness as the film unfolds. They will see Elvis as a young man with a passion for music. They will see him start to rise and become popular. They will see him performing his biggest hits. They will see him face controversy. They will see him enter a relationship with a woman from whom he will probably become estranged. They will see him suffer from issues of substance abuse and addiction. They will see him stage a comeback. They will see him worsen in health, and eventually pass away. And finally, they will witness a nice summary of his vast legacy through sentimental on-screen text, combined with footage from the actual artist’s life. In short, Elvis succumbs to a powerful dose of predictability.

The chief reason for the film’s predictable plot is because Elvis perfectly follows the predefined formula of the music biopic. Examples of this genre include highly successful motion pictures such as Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), and Rocketman (2019). These films follow the lives of Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Freddie Mercury, and Elton John, respectively. Each one of them, however, includes most if not all of the plot beats I detailed for Elvis above. Despite featuring completely different artists from music history who each had completely different personalities, the films that are based on their own unique lives seem quite homogenized. This is unfortunate because the formula of these biopics and the commercial success they more or less receive promotes the lack of originality in Hollywood, a topic that I have already written extensively about in other articles. Each movie mentioned above has a very talented actor (Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix, Rami Malek, and Taron Egerton, respectively) who provides an amazing, critically-acclaimed performance to mask a plot that is for the most part unoriginal. 

I should take a moment to point out that not all music biopics follow the restrictive, unoriginal formula, however. One incredible biopic I have seen in recent years is Love & Mercy (2014), directed by Bill Pohlad and starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as a younger and older Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. Unlike every other biopic I have mentioned in this article so far, Love & Mercy does not focus on Wilson’s entire life. Instead, it hones in on two specific eras in his personal history: the mid-late 1960s, when he was at his artistic peak, and the late 1980s, when he comes out of reclusion thanks to his soon-to-be wife. Of course, the entire cast does a terrific job of embodying their real-life nonfiction counterparts. At this point, that almost goes without saying. However, this film truly shines because it completely breaks the entire music biopic structure that had been previously established and creates a movie that is not only original but also heartbreaking and heartwarming. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who is either a Beach Boys fan or a cinephile who simply wants to enjoy a well-made, well-acted, well-written, and well-directed cinematic experience. 

In essence, while music biopics like Elvis may provide entertainment for some, they do reflect the ever-increasing cinematic unoriginality that has been plaguing Hollywood for the last few decades. However, films like Love & Mercy give me hope that not every project in this genre will be completely vapid and cliché. Love & Mercy proves that not all movies of its kind share the predictability of their peers. Overall, I do have faith that certain filmmakers and Hollywood itself will eventually be more open to producing and distributing much more unique music biopics.