Why hasn’t there been a great Elvis biopic yet? Well, Austin Butler wasn’t there to be the king of rock ‘n’ roll. At the heart of Baz Luhrmann’s sprawling pop epic Elvis, a film as opulent and oversized as the King’s talent and taste, Butler delivers a transformed, engaged and star-struck turn as Elvis Presley. The rumors are true: Elvis is alive, in Austin Butler.
Swirling around Butler’s bravura performance is a maniacal, maximalist, chopped-up music biopic in which Luhrmann situates Elvis as the earth-shattering turning point between ancient and modern, carnival and the television screen, a figure of pure spectacle, who threatened to – and did – obliterate the status quo it also. Luhrmann takes Presley’s legacy, relegated to a Las Vegas gag, and reminds us how dangerous, sexy, and downright revolutionary he once was. He makes Elvis relevant again.
Leaving everything on screen, Butler embodies the raw, unbridled sexual charisma of Elvis on stage. He is stunning, almost frantic in his portrayal of Presley’s most memorable musical performances, from his early days through his 1968 comeback special and his Vegas shows, and Luhrmann shoots and edits these scenes to not only capture Butler’s performance up close, but also the powerful impact Elvis had on his fans.
Written by Luhrmann, Jeremy Doner, Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce, the film packs the entire career of Elvis into two hours and 39 minutes of breathless filmmaking, focusing on the energy and emotional beats of Elvis’ journey and his exploitation at the hands of his manager Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, heavily made up in prosthetics).
Luhrmann also edits and uses a heavy hand in editing to constantly remind us of Elvis’ roots and motivations and the cultural significance of his groundbreaking career. Contemporary music on the soundtrack blends Presley’s performance of black music with the popularity of modern hip-hop; Snippets of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears hits remind us that Elvis paved the way for teen idols and that his story is also a cautionary tale.
The first part of the film, which focuses on his breakthrough as a handsome white boy from Memphis, Tennessee singing the blues, is fast, easy and dynamic, a whirlwind of honky tonks, tent revivals, Beale Street blues and country music shows. The pace is frantic; it cannot sit still, just as Elvis cannot sit still when he sings, overwhelmed by the music. Cinematographer Mandy Walker’s camera never stops moving, drawing us into this whirlwind of newfound fame, the wheels of the machine spinning faster than Elvis can keep up.
The pacing and sensory overload is exhilarating and intoxicating, a stark aesthetic and emotional contrast to later chapters in Elvis’ career. The Hollywood days are a montage of color and costume, an inauthentic facade that sells out to corporations and the bottom line. In the final section, Elvis is dumbed down and oppressed, stripped of his color and life, isolated in his “golden cage” at the International Hotel in Vegas.
The story is told from Parker’s perspective, an odd choice despite serving a larger narrative purpose. From his perspective we understand the spectacle that is Elvis; The Colonel almost licks his cheeks at the sight of this latest carnival attraction: a handsome, sexy, multiracial young man with a raspy vocals and a jet black forelock who can make teenage girls scream. With visions of dancing goods in his head, the Colonel is transforming Elvis into a global icon, but as “Elvis” continually argues, the Colonel has tamed the singer’s stubbornness and artistry, forcing him into cheesy film musicals and tireless touring.
Parker is the architect of Elvis’ downfall, taking everything he can, clipping his wings, grinding down this culture-changing force and offering it up as a tingling bite of entertainment, the soul behind the talent being thrown into the money machine and down the drain Dust.
The Colonel’s narration and Hanks’ cartoonishly evil performance serve as a signed plea of guilty as Luhrmann gives us Elvis as a Christ-like figure, a holy rock ‘n’ roll martyr crucified on the cross of capitalism and greed.
While Butler humanizes Elvis, Luhrmann idolizes him, arguing that he possessed far more radical potential, both musically and politically, than he’s been credited with. Not only did his swinging hips and wobbling knees portend boy bands and pop icons to come — “Elvis the Pelvis” also threatened to herald the sexual revolution and suddenly desegregate the South and usher rock ‘n’ roll into the world mainstream while igniting the first-ever “culture war.”
“Elvis” is not just a revival of the Elvis myth. It is also a resurrection of the king himself. Exit building? Not if Baz Luhrmann has anything to say about it.
Valuation: PG-13, for substance abuse, expletives, suggestive material and smoking
Duration: 2 hours, 39 minutes
To play: General release on June 24th
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-06-23/elvis-review-baz-luhrmann-austin-butler ‘Elvis’ review: Austin Butler is the King in Baz Luhrmann epic