Austin Butler rocks the king-size role of Elvis Presley in ornate new biopic
Starring Austin Butler & Tom Hanks
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
In theaters Friday, June 24
The familiar Elvis Presley rags-to-riches story gets “all shook up” with this baroque, extravagantly epic dive into the life, music and career of one of pop culture’s most iconic superstars—and his manipulative, mysterious manager.
Baz Lurhmann, Australia’s most commercially successful mainstream filmmaker, has never been known for modesty in his movies, which include The Great Gatsby (2013), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Australia (2018). He always leans toward bigger not smaller, more rather than less, and over-sizing everything.
So, he’s perhaps the perfect match for telling the story of Elvis, who became the biggest, brightest, hottest comet to ever blaze across the musical sky. With record sales of some 1.5 billion, he’s often cited as the top-selling recording act of all time. He changed everything that came after him and re-jiggered most everything that came before him. Like Beatle John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
Austin Butler is spectacular in the title role; he doesn’t particularly resemble Elvis physically, but he nonetheless becomes him in Butler’s often-uncanny channeling of Presley’s speech, gestures, movements and mannerisms. Add big, black sideburns and some movie sleight of hand, and he’s mesmerizing and believable at every “stage” of the familiar Elvis arc, from a lanky Southern mama’s boy to the lonely, exhausted Las Vegas headliner kept prisoner in a luxury penthouse.
Butler, who appeared in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as an ill-fated disciple of Charles Manson, also starred in TV’s Switched at Birth and The Carrie Diaries. This is his biggest, splashiest, most demanding role by far, and it’s a king-size performance in this king-size movie. He isn’t Elvis, of course. He’s the latest in a long line of actors (including Kurt Russell, Don Johnson, Jack White and Michael Shannon) who’ve tried on the bejeweled jumpsuit, with varying degrees of success. But there are moments in the movie, in Butler’s eyes or the sensual snarl of his lips, and with a sprinkle of Hollywood sleight of hand, you’d swear you’re actually watching Elvis onscreen.
But Elvis isn’t just about Elvis—the movie is framed around the entertainer’s fraught relationship with his longtime manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, played by the venerable Tom Hanks.
Hanks, who narrates as Parker throughout the film, gets both the first and the last words of this florid tale. Wearing a fat suit, a fake bulbous nose and loads of facial prosthetics, the Oscar-winning actor lays on thick slabs of juicy Hollywood ham. But the character he’s playing is also a ham, a former carnival huckster who milked Presley as his personal cash cow, while keeping deep secrets about himself and his ulterior motives.
And this ultimate “snowman” turned Elvis into his personal carnival attraction, his closely guarded money machine.
Like Parker, Luhrmann is also a showman. He uses loads of razzle-dazzle to tell—and sell—this tale, a frenetic, whiplash, time-jumping, hyper-stylish fantasia that depicts Elvis’ career as it builds to a crescendo—then progressively consumes him. A childhood sequence unfolds in the pastel panels of a comic book; a photo of Presley on the front pages of the newspaper becomes animated and speaks; a ride on a Ferris wheel transforms into a spinning vinyl record, a visual bridge connecting Parker’s dubious carnival-con background to Presley’s skyrocketing career.
The movie paints a damning picture of Parker, and rightly so. But it gives credit where credit is due when it comes to Elvis, especially in showing his deep musical grounding in Black R&B and gospel, how his cultural foundation was set by both the spiritual and the secular, in juke joints as well as tent revivals. We see Elvis’ early associations with Memphis bluesman B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), piano-pounding Little Richard (Alton Mason), soulful belter “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) and Delta singer-guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Arthur Crudup (played by real-life Texas blue-rocker Gary Clark Jr.). We watch as the young Presley launches his own career with his versions of some of those artists’ songs, notably “Hound Dog” and “That’s All Right,” and takes them into the musical mainstream.
We see Elvis’ music shatter racial barriers of the era, as this “white boy” performing “Black music” unsettles stodgy segregationist conservatives, represented in the movie by country hitmaker and Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow (David Wenham)—though Snow’s young singer-wannabe son, Jimmie (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is quick to grab onto Elvis’s high-voltage sizzle. We see the genesis of the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” and watch how his jaw-dropping onstage gyrations send female fans into spasms of orgasmic frenzy.
For Elvis fans, it’s all here: his beloved mother (Helen Thompson) and his ex-con dad (Richard Roxburgh); his romance and marriage to the lovely teenage Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge); his so-called “Memphis mafia” of close friends; his entry into military service and the spate of cheesy movie musicals he made after his discharge. There’s Graceland… here we are on Elvis’ tour bus… there’s Elvis boarding his personal airplane, named after his baby daughter, Lisa Marie. And there’s Dr. Nick (Tony Nixon), the physician who later joined his entourage to keep the drained, depleted, over-medicated Elvis “up” for his gauntlet of shows, jabbing Presley with a hypodermic needle when he collapses backstage.
As you might expect, there’s lots of music, a sprawling “greatest hits” patchwork that includes “Suspicious Minds,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Trouble,” “If I Can Dream,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Burning Love,” “An American Trilogy,” and what became Elvis’ trademark show-opener, the space-age theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some tunes are performed by Butler, others overdubbed with Presley’s actual voice, and still more pop up in the soundtrack by other artists, including Doja Cat, Jack White, Stevie Nicks, Eminem and CeeLo Green, and a version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Kacey Musgraves. The movie faithfully recreates landmark, detail-perfect TV appearances and performances—the 1968 Elvis “comeback” NBC special, his record-setting 1973 satellite concert from Hawaii, his four-year run as a sell-out headliner at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Elvis shows how Presley’s music was not only a reflection of his roots, but also a response to the changing times, like the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the horrific murders of the Manson clan. And it depicts Elvis as a moody, broody, quietly ambitious megastar, one who worried about his legacy, who regretted never becoming a bona fide film actor (like his idol, James Dean), and whose oversized appetite for performing, for music and for his fans was a love that could never be requited by any real human relationship.
“You look lost,” Parker tells Elvis when he comes upon him in a carnival house of mirrors, confused by all the reflections. “Maybe I am,” Elvis says.
Yes, maybe he was. It’s easy to lose your way trying to figure out the real Elvis, to discern the real man behind his many reflections—hip-cat rockabilly, gospel devotee, blues lover, matinee idol, cultural agitator, proud American patriot, son, father and husband, Vegas workhorse. He was all these things, or he appeared that way to various people at various times. And he found himself, so to speak, by hitching his high-wire hillbilly wagon to Parker, a man who would later face accusations that his Machiavellian machinations drove Presley to his early death.
Elvis died, alone and in his bathroom, at the young age of 42 in 1977. But his music and his legend continue to live on, across the decades, and now through this gorgeously flamboyant cautionary tale about the high price he paid for his fame.
For his millions of fans, seeing this mega-movie (that stretches into more than two hours and 40 minutes) will become another reason why they “Can’t Help Falling in Love” again, and anew, with Elvis.