With a drawn-out, deep howl and a vibration that starts at the toes and rolls up through his entire body, a pivotal scene early in director Baz Luhrmann’s newest movie lets us watch two stars being born. The first is Elvis Presley, the subject of Luhrmann’s biopic “Elvis.” Luhrmann gives us a glimpse of an awkward kid from Memphis just prior to his eruption on stage, his “lewd” dancing and vocal stylings ripped from Black rhythm and blues creating a nationwide sensation, later to be known as the King of Rock and Roll. The second is Austin Butler, the actor who had the world’s biggest pair of shoes to fill when he won the titular role in Luhrmann’s film. Primarily known for his work on the Disney Channel and more recently for supporting roles in films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Butler proves himself a more than capable as a lead. He not only physically embodies his character and all the changes he undergoes over the years during this decades-spanning film, but he also channels an especially electric energy when playing Elvis performing on stage. Original recordings of Elvis’ unmatchable voice are used for scenes when he is older, but for younger Elvis at the start of film, it’s all Butler, and he both looks and sounds impressive.
But on the whole, “Elvis” doesn’t venture much deeper than looking and sounding impressive. The gaudy spectacle that’s integral to Luhrmann’s style suits the subject matter well, particularly once the narrative moves on to Elvis’ post-war years, all sparkly jumpsuits and the saturated pops of color that accompany a montage of his film work (frequently regarded as frivolous, but actually having a good bit of variety across genres). While he does a decent job recreating familiar moments seen in documentaries and concert films, notably the essential “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is,” Luhrmann also goes wild with the camera, kicking the film off by whirling it around the exterior of Vegas’ International Hotel, where Elvis famously had a multi-year residency in the 1970s, the delirium represented in the camerawork mirroring the drug-filled haze of the final years of his life. Luhrmann also uses crash zooms during the concert scenes to capture audience reactions, compiling a collection of faces that range from young women screaming with pleasure to the stern, disapproving gaze of older conservative men. The frantic pace is further reflected in the editing, which often cuts between shots of Elvis’ pelvic thrusts and the audience, and it all pulls together to effectively create an image of everything Elvis represented that made him simultaneously loved and hated. A mere wiggle of his body could send women over the edge of ecstasy, could make men want to be like him (we see a bit of this early on in Kodi Smit-McPhee, looking like he just waltzed in off the “Power of the Dog” set playing a clean-cut country music singer in a small supporting role). That same look and sound could send the older generation into a tizzy, not just because they viewed the way he moved as sinful, but because his incorporation of Black sound into his music was seen as an act of integration by segregationists.
But while all this portrayal upholds Elvis the myth, it avoids getting at Elvis the man. In fact, Luhrmann seems bent on depicting Elvis as too much of a fundamentally good person. Luhrmann’s Elvis is a good boy who loves his mom, played by Helen Thomson, who perhaps loves her son a little too much in return; there’s a strange and rather uncomfy edge to their relationship here. He stands up for civil rights; in what feels like too much of a white savior narrative, Elvis rejects the advice of his managers to hang out with his Black musician friends, including blues legend B.B. King (played here by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and, let’s be real, deserves his own movie), who tell Elvis throughout the film that he will always be able to have bigger hits with their music because of the color of his skin. When Dr. King is assassinated, he’s overcome with the urge to “do something.” Furthermore, while Luhrmann does acknowledge what most tales about Elvis gloss over—that he derived his style from and had some of his biggest hits covering songs that were made by Black artists first— he doesn’t probe the issue with any sort of depth or nuance. There are at least a few times where Luhrmann cuts from Elvis watching a Black performer singing a song, such as “Hound Dog,” straight to Elvis covering it—and that’s about it. In his final years, Elvis’ fatal flaw is his love for people— his family, his wife (Priscilla, played quite exceptionally by Olivia DeJonge), and his fans— and Luhrmann even goes so far as to pin his drug addiction on those around, absolving Elvis of any bad behavior that came as a side effect.
The bulk of the blame is pinned on the film’s other main player, Elvis’ longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Luhrmann oddly chooses Parker as not just the villain of the story, but also the narrator. A framing device finds Parker on his deathbed, hallucinating a stroll through vacant Vegas casinos while in the hospital on a morphine drip, recounting his partnership with Elvis through flashbacks. This is another reason why, outside of a few moments here and there, “Elvis” really struggles to get under its subject’s skin; we are primarily viewing him through the eyes of Parker, and Parker primarily views him as a ticket to a fortune, a means to an end. And then there’s Hanks’ much-meme’d interpretation of the character. Parker was a strange guy to begin with, an illegal Dutch immigrant who changed his identity to avoid deportation, but he was also cunning, squandering away much of Elvis’ fortune and then suing the singer for an exorbitant amount of money when he tried to fire him. But Hanks, donning heavy prosthetics and an exaggerated accent, makes Parker too silly to take seriously in any capacity. I’m here for Hanks entering his quirky character actor era, and it’s kind of fun to see an actor who built his career playing nice guys playing someone who is unquestionably not nice, but every time he lumbers into the frame it has the same effect Jared Leto did in last year’s “House of Gucci,” completely altering the tone of the scene in what is otherwise a serious drama.
Elvis Presley deserves a better biopic than this, but there’s no doubt that this is the Elvis biopic Luhrmann was always going to make. At least we can say that he injects a genre typically bound by convention with some unique style, from his camerawork to the music, using modern songs in a period setting. For an almost three hour movie encompassing almost three decades of one of the most famous person in the world’s life and career, it’s pretty nicely paced too; it may be a shallow movie, but it doesn’t feel too rushed. No one will ever have the presence the real Elvis did, but there were times where Butler came close to fooling me, and it’s worth watching “Elvis” just for the marriage of those two talents alone.
“Elvis” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 159 minutes. Rated R.