Austin Butler, Baz Luhrmann deliver a great ‘Elvis’

“Elvis” – ★ ★ ★

The brief life of Elvis Presley is not something that fits perfectly into a conventional biographical formula, although many have tried. Perhaps a director as wild and visionary as Baz Luhrmann was always going to be needed to make something that evokes the essence of the King’s 42 years. Luhrmann knows better than to adapt a Wikipedia page when it comes to such a singular, larger-than-life star, whose legend has only intensified and darkened nearly half a century after his death. Plus, he found a perfect star in Austin Butler, who bravely embodies the icon without ever falling into personification.

With “Elvis,” Luhrmann and Butler have created something gloriously messy: a maximalist opera of contradictions, styles, truths, myths, memories, and headlines. He doesn’t explain, apologize or care about logic. Dates and places, when broadcast, often fly by with little fanfare in montages of broadcast or newspaper headlines. No one who doesn’t already know the facts of Elvis Presley’s life is going to accept any trivia about him after this movie. He eludes or completely ignores some seemingly important things, like the fact that he met Priscilla (explained by Olivia DeJong) when he was 24 and she was 14. His entire Hollywood career is summed up in one quick montage that ends with the Colonel of Tom Hanks. Tom Parker saying in voiceover that “we had a lot of fun”.

Perhaps it’s because there are other moments that Luhrmann and his writing team consider more important: Elvis’s first acts of rebellion in defiance of local politicians, the death of his mother, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John and Robert Kennedy, the 1968 leather-clad comeback special, and the gilded cage of his Las Vegas residence, among them.

And yet, this nearly three-hour extravaganza that takes you from the cradle to the grave (and beyond) unfolds in a bubbly, shimmery, sweaty flash that leaves you unsatisfied. It is fueled by Butler’s transcendent portrayal of Elvis from the age of 17, capturing his almost overnight rise from scrawny trucker and occasional singer to the most famous man in the world. Parker, Elvis’s controversial manager and promoter, may not have known much about music, but he saw what Elvis did to an audience with his proto-punk style, gyrating hips and mix of country and R&B, and he knew he could earn money. out of this boy.

The story is actually framed first as the morphine memory of Parker, who is dying in a stark hospital room overlooking the flashy Las Vegas Strip two decades after Elvis’s death. Parker tells the audience that he is not the villain. Surely this is his prerogative and probably something he believed to be true despite all the evidence to the contrary that this carnival huckster finally broke his fragile star (or at least put him on the path to inevitable ruin). And yet the fact that, even under mountains of prosthetics and a weird accent, he’s still Tom Hanks with his endlessly empathetic eyes can make you doubt yourself, or understand why Elvis might have doubted himself. The artifice of his performance fits into the context of Luhrmann’s theatrical narrative.


Although the film is flimsy with biographical facts, it makes sure to put Elvis’s Mississippi and Beale Street influences front and center. We watch him soak up everything from the sexiness of juke joints and the ecstasy in the Pentecostal revival tents he saw as a kid to the work of black artists like BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) would see them later.

Everything is presented without comment, judgment or much introspection. He is a police officer? An election? Is it challenging the audience to draw their own conclusions? Whatever it is, at least it’s consistent with a movie where “Dr. Nick” and his pills seem to appear out of nowhere. And, again, “Elvis” seems more about taking you on an emotional, visceral level than it is about inundating you with facts and intricacies surrounding race and business in mid-century America.

Luhrmann never does anything halfway, but perhaps one of the most surprising things about “Elvis” is how contained it is at the end. This could have been a wall-to-wall Can-Can fever dream, filled with rhinestones and dizzying camera movements. There is something to that, no doubt. But Luhrmann and his collaborators reserve most of that chaotic energy for the stage, and more specifically for the persona of Elvis. It’s as if the savagery of all of Luhrmann’s films pours out of Butler’s Elvis, through his hip thumps, sweat, and that beautiful, booming voice.

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Cast: Austin Butler, Olivia DeJong, Tom Hanks

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann

Other: A Warner Bros. release in theaters. Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material, and smoking. 159 minutes

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