Austin Butler is absolutely magnetic in the title role of Baz Luhrmann’s "Elvis"
Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Dacre Montgomery, Luke Bracey, Natasha Bassett, David Wenham, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chaydon Jay and Gary Clark Jr. Written by Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Now playing at GTA theatres. 159 minutes. STC
Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is more than all right, mama. It blasts the screen with the Aussie director’s trademark glitter and bravado but also hits the right historical and musical notes for a biopic worthy of a legendary performer.
Luhrmann’s grandest achievement is casting relative unknown Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and putting him up against the extremely well-known Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker, the grasping manager and villainous Svengali to Elvis. The title star is obliged to steal the spotlight back from the film’s supporting star and it’s a joy to watch him do it.
Butler, previously seen as a Manson Family killer in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” is absolutely magnetic as Elvis. The young actor presents Elvis as the rebel showman of public renown and the vulnerable soul of personal life; both versions ring true.
Butler conjures the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s looks, voice and moves over several decades, from his nascent stardom (and pelvis-wiggling notoriety) of the 1950s to his superstar Las Vegas residency and personal decline in the 1970s.
Luhrmann connects the dots between the many R&B and gospel influences Elvis absorbed as a kid — Chaydon Jay plays him as a wide-eyed child — growing up in the predominantly Black neighbourhood of his hometown Tupelo, Mississippi. It was there, plus visits as a teenager to Beale Street, the Black music mecca in Memphis, that Elvis developed a love for the boundary-breaking music he would introduce to white America.
We first see Butler as Elvis at the dawn of the singer’s professional career. At the Louisiana Hayride in 1954, he’s mocked by the crowd for being a white country singer in a pink suit performing Black songs — notably “That’s All Right” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, a Delta blues singer and guitarist, which would become Elvis’s first of many hits.
The mocking lasts only until he begins to sing: his powerful delivery and frankly sexual moves astonish the audience and enrapture its female members, who want to do much more than play house with him.
It’s a visual and sonic explosion, with many more to come. But the film itself begins on a downbeat note, with Hanks as the clownish Parker addressing the camera and bragging that he invented Elvis Presley: “It was Elvis the showman and the Colonel the snowman,” Parker says.
Parker, who in reality was a Dutchman falsely proclaiming himself an American colonel, refers to himself as the snowman because of the “snow jobs” he perpetrated on hapless rubes during his early days as a carnival huckster. Hanks and Luhrmann repeatedly return to this metaphor of exploitation. Hanks is not above mugging for the camera with his goofy straw hat, ever-present cigar, clownish walking stick and rapacious grin.
Hanks has his moments but threatens at first to make this the “King Richard” of rock biopics, doing what Will Smith did to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams in last year’s dad-oriented story.
Have no fear: Butler’s Elvis is just too good to be upstaged by a conniving hustler, even one played by an actor commonly viewed as Hollywood’s greatest living male star. Playing Elvis Presley is a star-making role for Butler much like playing Freddie Mercury was for Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
This version of Elvis’s life story also gives the King credit for having a sense of his own destiny, something often denied or downplayed in many previous Presley biopics. This is not another story of Elvis as a naive victim.
From the moment he first talks business with Parker, implausibly at the top of a carnival Ferris wheel, it’s clear Elvis is a man of ambition and agency. He’s willing to allow Parker to manage him but not to completely control him, and there’s a constant push and pull between their competing desires.
The movie is in fact a series of rebellious acts by Elvis, against staid social mores and the colonel’s controlling nature; two long sections particularly illustrate these tests of will.
The first is a Bible Belt concert in the mid-1950s at the peak of the “Elvis the Pelvis” scandal, when Parker and civic authorities wanted the star to sing as “the new Elvis” without moving his body, so as not to inflame public morals and incite a riot. Elvis instead breaks into a steamy version of “Trouble” and all panty-flinging hell breaks loose.
The second is a 1968 television special that Parker has told the sponsors will be a sappy Christmas-themed show. Elvis rightly rejects that idea and, under the guidance of “hippie” show director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), he instead delivers a leather-suited performance of hits old and new, which will come to be known as the King’s “Comeback Special.” Parker is furious until he sees the audience numbers.
Liberties are frequently taken with facts, incidents and dates, but it’s amazing how much ground “Elvis” covers — and also how much of the man’s music we get to hear, considering how Luhrmann loves to introduce anachronistic music elements, such as the hip hop in “The Great Gatsby” and modern pop in “Moulin Rouge!”
Elvis’s entire movie career flashes by as a bracing montage with first-rate production design. As for the rocker’s notorious drug usage, it’s much in evidence and remarked upon, but until it begins to seriously hamper his home life it’s just part of “Taking Care of Business,” to quote the motto of the family firm.
Yet even with a running time pushing three hours, the film pays scant heed to many significant people in Presley’s life, first and foremost Priscilla Presley, the woman who became his wife (later his ex-wife) and bore his only child, Lisa Marie. Olivia DeJonge plays her well, but there’s only so much she can do given her limited screen time.
Luhrmann has said there’s a four-hour cut of the film that presumably gives more exposure to Priscilla and other characters, including Elvis’s “Memphis Mafia” of good ol’ boy accomplices, who are mainly seen in the background.
The longer version isn’t really necessary, though, especially if it comes with more Tom Hanks. Butler gives a truly transformative performance of Elvis, the man everybody has paid to see. He goes the distance from skinny new sensation to well-fed Vegas mainstay.
The transformation is so convincing, it’s not a shock when the film ends with an affecting performance of “Unchained Melody” by the real Elvis Presley, seen in one of his final concerts, weeks before his death in August 1977.
The King is bloated and gaudily attired in a gold-accented white jumpsuit. But he’s still in fine voice and happy to be putting on a show for the people. The same thing can be said of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)