Baz Luhrmann’s sprawling music biopic, Elvis, is the best and worst of Luhrmann’s brand of ritzy-glitzy filmmaking. On the one hand, Luhrmann’s signature maximalism is perfectly suited to the unabashedly tacky Elvis, both the man who loved flashy clothes and accoutrement, and the icon immortalized in rhinestone capes. On the other hand, Luhrmann’s style eventually swallows his substance, flattening his rendering of Elvis Presley the longer the movie runs—which is overlong at two hours and forty minutes. This is a film with two faces, one zinging with verve and music and passion, the other eliding the complexities from Elvis’s life, altering or outright ignoring anything about Elvis-the-man that doesn’t serve the approved mythology of Elvis-the-icon. Luhrmann’s preoccupation with Elvis’s crooked manager, Colonel Tom Parker, exacerbates the problem, obfuscating Elvis-the-man even further behind Parker’s PR manipulations.
As a concert film, Elvis succeeds in doing what all great historical films do, which is transport us to a time and a place we could never visit. At this point, more people have not seen Elvis perform live than have, yet Luhrmann’s immaculate recreations of Elvis’s concerts ranging from his star-making shows in the 1950s to his comeback special in 1968 to his reign in Las Vegas in the 1970s gives us a sense of what it might have been like to see Elvis perform—the emotion, the hysteria, the artistry of a true once-in-a-generation performer. But as a biography, Elvis falls into the usual biopic pitfalls, speeding through events so that there is no sense of time passing, oversimplifying things that deserve—even demand—critical reassessment, and trending dangerously close to Walk Hard territory with a bonkers portrayal of Elvis’s family, particularly his mother, that even if accurate, requires far more fleshing out than it gets here to make it comprehensible.
It is tempting to enumerate Elvis’s flaws, for there are many, starting with Tom Hanks’s career-worst performance as Colonel Tom Parker, the Svengali-like figure who turns Elvis into a superstar but also a punchline. There is something in the early sections of the film about art and commerce and generation gaps and culture wars, Luhrmann—who co-wrote the film with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner—teeters on the brink of a scathing indictment of the business of show. But the show ultimately wins, and one can’t help but feel Luhrmann identifies with, maybe overidentifies with, the smarmy Parker, a consummate “snowman” who specializes in cheap spectacle. He has no respect for Elvis’s artistry, though, and at every turn ends up undermining Elvis’s ambitions. It’s despite Parker’s middling meddling that Elvis becomes the superstar he is, just as there is one thing that saves the film from Hanks’s disastrous performance.
And this is why I cannot dump on this movie, because every time it breaks down, every time Luhrmann’s self-indulgence gets in his own way, every time the film nudges up against the specter of Dewey Cox, thinking about his whole life before he goes on stage, something happens. The rarest magic cinema has to offer occurs, and even as part of your brain is going, “This isn’t very good, good GOD, what is Tom Hanks DOING?”, another part of your brain is screaming in delight, every pleasure center lighting up at once, demanding more, more, more.
Because Austin Butler blows through this movie like a tornado laying waste to a town. He bulldozes straight through every bad thing with a brilliance that emerges MAYBE once every decade, if we’re lucky. To say he’s a revelation is to say Big Ben is just a clock. Any attempt to describe his performance sounds like insane hyperbole, and I cannot help but think that must be how people felt trying to describe Elvis, in the beginning. Something new, something electric, something you thought you’d seen before until this specific person came along and served it to you in a way you never knew it could be. This is not impersonation, it is inhabitation. Austin Butler IS Elvis in a way that will permanently alter how you remember Elvis.
Butler is so searingly good, he almost—almost—covers up the film’s worse sins, which is polishing away the complicated edges of Elvis’s legacy, particularly around his relationship with Priscilla (portrayed in the film by Olivia DeJonge, who might be a perfectly good actor but who is so wholly swallowed by Butler’s monumental performance she makes zero impression), and his relationship to Black culture. The film mentions Priscilla is a teenager when she meets Elvis but does not specify that she was just fourteen when they met in Germany. And because the early portion of the film moves so fast through Elvis’s rise, we have no sense of how old he is—twenty-four—when he meets Priscilla. The film plays it as two lonely kids connecting in a strange land, but really, it was a fully-grown man hanging out with a teenaged girl, which didn’t look good even back in 1960.
Worse still is how the film portrays Elvis’s relationship to Black music and culture. The film acknowledges Elvis’s early influences of Black gospel and blues in a wonderfully shot sequence that marries the two in an ecstatic sequence that suggests the roots of Elvis’s “wiggle” stem from tent revival spiritualism. But Luhrmann obviously doesn’t want to plumb these thorny depths, he largely dismisses any criticism that Elvis profited from Black music more than any Black musician of the era did with a quick “But he was friends with B.B. King!” It is interesting how Beale Street influenced Elvis’s style, and that he shared a tailor with King, and how everything about his early presentation brought Black culture to white America in the age of segregation. Luhrmann dances on the line of Elvis’s early clashes with politicians and those who sought to “control” him, to make him more palatable to conservative white America, but Luhrmann isn’t really interested in the political fight around Elvis.
Once again, though, it’s Austin Butler to the rescue. His rendition of “Trouble”—Butler does all the singing in the early portion of the film, since Elvis’s early recordings can’t be used for twisty legal reasons—is a barn-burner. His smooth tenor turns into an electric howl of rage as Elvis unleashes after feeling backed into a corner. Elvis has few opportunities to lash out like this, and Butler makes the most of every one of them, writhing and growling with a throaty roar that wouldn’t sound amiss coming out of Kurt Cobain’s microphone. Certainly, Luhrmann understands Elvis as a cautionary tale, as a sort of proto-Britney, but Butler, with his Bambi face and “Black Velvet” voice, directly channels modern pop stars in key moments, linking Elvis’s trials and tribulations with ongoing systemic issues of exploitation in the entertainment industry. Luhrmann merely touches on the likeness, Butler breathes life into it, connecting then and now in a manner that makes Elvis feel all the more real.
Is Elvis perfect? No. It’s not even very good, if we’re being honest. It commits the worst biopic cliches and worse, brushes past complicated history in favor of blatant hagiography. And then there’s Tom Hanks’s whole deal which is just… I still don’t have words to describe this performance but “misguided” is a start. (Also, framing Elvis’s life through the eyes of the man who took such shameless and boundless advantage of him is A CHOICE.) But then there is Austin Butler, utterly transcendent, refusing to be pulled down by the mistakes of others. Instead, he shoulders the whole film, carrying it and delivering a performance for the ages, an instantly indelible cinematic moment, an unforgettable star-making turn. Even the gaudiest of Elvis’s costumes do not wear him, Butler commands every inch of the screen, every moment of attention, every sparkle of sequins and flash of rhinestones. He will make you not care about anything else happening in Elvis, you will just want one more scene, one more second of him devouring the scenery. Austin Butler doesn’t just portray Elvis, he frees Elvis from decades of chintz and tragedy. He gives Elvis back to us.
Elvis is now exclusively in theaters.