Most music biopics open with the central performer thinking about their whole life before they play. Elvis shakes things up… with the performer’s manager thinking about his whole life. Of course, you can’t tell Colonel Tom Parker’s story without also telling Elvis Presley’s story. That said, Elvis is at its best when it’s an Elvis movie. Whenever Austin Butler channels the King of Rock and Roll, sheer electricity surges out of the screen, capturing the spectacle of a Vegas show. When it’s a Colonel movie, it’s more like a Vegas bender: unfocused, over-the-top, and confusing when you wake up. Even with the hangover, though, the previous night was pretty epic.
Tom Hanks has a history of taking big swings with thick, borderline cartoony accents. When he hits it out of the park, we get Oscar-winning performances like in Forrest Gump. When he misses, we get The Ladykillers. His Colonel accent falls between Viktor Navorski in The Terminal and one of his Cloud Atlas characters. When you first hear it, you’re inclined to laugh. As the film progresses, though, you stop hearing the accent and just hear the Colonel. It’s a testament to Hanks’ gifts, although you’re always aware that you’re watching an actor performing. The audience never questions Austin Butler, however. From the minute he appears on screen, Elvis is the only one we see.
“Transformative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when reviewing biopics. It might not be the right word for Butler’s performance, as Elvis will mark his introduction for many viewers. Butler has primarily appeared in kid sitcoms. His most prominent film credit up until this point was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was wise of director Baz Luhrmann to cast a lesser-known talent rather than Harry Styles or Miles Teller, who were both considered. Had this film been made 30 years ago, perhaps Nicolas Cage would’ve been in the running. Being an up-and-comer, it’s easier for the audience to accept Butler as Presley, although there’s nothing easy about his performance.
Viewers can sense the sweat, blood, and tears that Butler put into delivering the most authentic portrayal of Elvis possible. Butler not only gets the look and voice down, but also the physicality with gyrations that might have the ladies (and dudes) fawning in their seats. Butler has the vocal range to become the King as well, although archived recordings were used for Elvis’ later days. Even when Luhrmann takes creative liberties (and there are quite a few), we always believe that Butler is Elvis.
While Luhrmann’s film is a lovingly-made tribute to Elvis the Superhero, it’s unclear if Tom Parker is supposed to be a super-villain. The film opens with the carny turned manager saying that some believe he killed Elvis. He aspires to prove that he made Elvis. We see both sides as the plot unfolds with Parker remaining a greedy SOB throughout. The movie can never decide, though, if we’re supposed to empathize with him or not. We’re not even sure if he’s supposed to be an unreliable narrator. Having Parker narrate Elvis’ story is an inspired framing device, but we might’ve gotten something on par with Amadeus if the film had a better grasp on Parker.
At two hours and forty minutes, it’s debatable if Elvis is either too long or if we needed Luhrmann’s four-hour cut to flesh out certain aspects. In any case, Luhrmann has delivered another spectacle with kinetic editing, larger-than-life sets, and costumes worthy of musical royalty. Some may call it style over substance, but there’s plenty of substance to be found in Butler’s star-making turn. He’s the main reason to see Elvis on the biggest screen possible. In his pinky alone, Butler possesses more charisma than most stars can ever dream of attaining. Hanks’ performance may be as excessive as the run time, but he makes for a fun addition, especially considering Forrest Gump’s impact on Elvis.
Fans of Luhrmann’s style will have a burning love for the picture. If Luhrmann isn’t for you, there’s an “I Hate Elvis” button with your name on it. For me, it’s a film I can’t help but like, even if I wanted to fall in love with it.