Austin Butler is utterly unreal in the larger than life role of Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann's heavily stylized and glamourous biopic.
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There's no director quite like Baz Luhrmann.
He has managed to retell classic stories such as “Romeo & Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby” with his own unique sensibilities while also crafting lavish and unconventional blockbusters such as “Moulin Rouge!” and “Australia.” From his frenetic editing style, a maximalist flair, flashy colors, mixing period settings with modern music, and going gloriously over-budget, Luhrmann is a filmmaker that audiences either love or hate. Though one thing is always for certain: his films are never forgettable.
And “Elvis” may just be Baz Luhrmann’s most electric and artist-driven outing yet.
The film is exactly as advertised, it’s the story of the rise and subsequent fall of the King of Rock n’ Roll himself, Elvis Presley told through the dynamic lens of Baz Luhrmann.
Within the first seconds of the film, “Elvis” already opens at an 11, from the studio logos alone and simply smash cutting to the bright-lights of Las Vegas, loud music, screaming fans, overcrowded shots, and a voice-over narration by Tom Hanks donning a peculiar accent as Colonel Tom Parker inquiring about ‘who really killed Elvis Presley.’ Though for anyone who knows the history behind Presley and his complicated relationship with his ever controversial manager, the answer is simple. In all facts of the matter, Hank’s Colonel is the villain in “Elvis.”
Tom Hanks is one of the most celebrated and cherished actors working in the industry and is known, in his post-comedy career, to take on roles that are more ‘pure’ and often ‘prestigious’ and not one to step into villainous territory. So his latest turn in Elvis can get a bit jarring. Donning a fatsuit, layers and layers upon makeup, and talking in a truly bizarre accent, Hanks take on the Colonel could really only work in a Luhrmann film. The end result is a performance that can come across as distracting and doesn’t really have that kinetic spark with Austin Butler.
Butler on the other hand, who got his start as an extra on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon sitcoms, before going on to snag supporting roles in films from auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, is utterly unreal as Elvis Presley. Taking on a role such as Presley is daunting in of itself, but Butler never loses site of his intent, transforming himself into one of the most revered legends in music.
From the distinct southern accent, the larger than life stage presence, and those gyrating hips, it almost is like Presley had been brought back to life. It’s one of the most remarkable performances in a biopic, that I have ever seen and regardless of how one may feel about the movie overall, nobody will downplay Butler’s turn. Austin Butler is going to become the next big thing.
With a near 3-hour runtime, a trip to the theaters for “Elvis” may seem like a daunting task, it’s the kind of film that one needs to know what they’re getting into before buying a ticket. While often style over substance is often viewed as a detriment to film, Luhrmann takes the criticism and spins it on its head. He’s fully aware of the energetic flair he brings to his films and runs with it. No other filmmaker would showcase a montage of Elvis Presley set to a remix of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. But Luhrmann does. He’s one of cinema’s last remaining showman and even at his low points, he never keeps quiet.
Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is big and bombastic and it can prove to be an exhaustive viewing. Luhrmann never lets the film dwindle in sluggish pacing, but the lightning rod of energy that he channels, also makes you never lose focus. At it’s core “Elvis” is still an emotional journey, one that tries to dive into the head of a figure that is one of the most iconic and influential in the world of entertainment. In the modern world, some may view the King as a ‘joke’ but Austin Butler and Baz Luhrmann have brought the sexiness back to Presley.
One of the only pitfalls that “Elvis” faces is it’s lack of development in the superstar’s relationships with some of the most vital people in his life. While his dynamic with the Colonel is at the crux of the film, the lack of focus on his romance with his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) hinders some of the film’s emotional impact in the final act. In fact, Luhrmann claims that he has a four hour long directors cut of the film and while that may feel like a migraine in the waiting to the auteur’s dissenters, it could add an extra personal layer to an already ambitious and unique film.
Music biopics like a “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Straight Outta Compton” were well-crafted film, but the classic rise to fame story is starting to wane thin. “Rocketman” was able to feel a bit more flavorful because of it’s jukebox musical angle and Elton John’s insistency to genuinely show his struggles and flaws. But “Elvis” is an entirely different beast. Despite being a biopic, Luhrmann gives “Elvis” an other-worldly flavor and one that demands that the film needs to be seen on the big screen.
Much like this summer’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Elvis” is another summer blockbuster that feels like a classic slice of Americana. Events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the murder of Sharon Tate serve as backdrops to the film, while also exploring social unrest and the civil rights movement. While some of these topics might seem like they wouldn’t feel fitting for a movie on Elvis Presley, it adds an extra sense of immersion. “Elvis” is the story of the American Dream.
“Elvis” is an experimentation of the traditional rock biopic and under Baz Luhrmann’s passionate and flavorful direction, it’ll likely wind up being one of the most memorable films of 2022. Austin Butler’s triumphant performance is worth the price of admission alone.
“Elvis” may not be a film for everybody. I’ll completely understand if someone were to tell me they hated it. But for me, “Elvis” is one of the most purely artist driven studio films I’ve seen in a very long time.