Review: From Austin Butler's high to Tom Hanks' Tupelo, 'Elvis' mostly lands with grace
My grandmother grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, a town best known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley. He was just a few years younger than her, and as you can guess, the King occupied an outsized place of honor in my childhood. I think of the legend of Elvis as both inescapable — postage stamps, tabloid conspiracies, wedding chapel pretenders — and magical.
There’s never been a stranger time to release a big-budget cinematic spectacular like “Elvis,” which gilds that myth. The years increasingly separate Presley from new generations, who have more musical choices than ever. Modern conversation about his legacy must peel into how the unsung creative work of Black artists built a lucrative existence for a white man.
And if Elvis’ life story is a banana, peculiarly American concepts like moral panic and capitalist exploitation are the peanut butter. So by all means, let’s give an Australian dude a spin at the Cadillac wheel.
The long-awaited biopic “Elvis” is now out in theaters, directed by Baz Luhrmann, the splashy auteur who brought us “Consumption: The Jukebox Musical” and “Roc Nation Presents: An Art Deco Fever Dream.” (Aka “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby,” both of which I like, for the record.)
In former teen heartthrob Austin Butler, the often-dazzling "Elvis” finds its King, a rock & roll savior in a pop culture passion play that tragically ends like its subject — bloated by bad influences.
Should you need a plot summary, know that the film hits the Presley milestones like Burma-Shave signs on a country highway. Boyhood in the South, teen years soaking up the music of blues greats in Memphis, discovery by Parker in the Sun Records days, early hip-shaking scandals, a stint in the Army, Hollywood indignities, a televised comeback and a final act in Las Vegas — they're all shook up.
Presley was no poet laureate, but rather a great interpreter of song. Butler (forever Sebastian from “The Carrie Diaries” to some of us) finds himself in the same position here, but interpreting a life. As all good actors know, playing a real person is about capturing an essence, not crafting an impression. Butler’s eye-lined, pomaded, sweat-flinging, honey-drawling take on perhaps the most impersonated soul in modern history feels familiar but constantly reveals new depths.
The major miracle of “Elvis” is that 30-year-old Butler believably slides through about a quarter-century of hip-swiveling, from Eisenhower-era jailhouse rocker to suspicion of the mind in the Nixon and Ford years. Only in the final days of Presley’s life, when the singer’s physical state became an enduring and mean-spirited punchline, does Butler not quite wear the cape with comfort, though Luhrmann wisely tries to work around it.
And yet this movie makes you work around itself, keeping Presley at a frustrating remove. Perhaps hoping to preserve the universal divinity afforded the gods we turn into Halloween costumes, Luhrmann’s vision hinges on the slippery shoulders of Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ infamous manager. Played by Tom Hanks, he was a mysterious man without a country who reportedly manipulated the singer for personal gain. In “Elvis,” Parker is narrator, interpreter and, to be frank, the lead character.
There are some smart instincts here, positioning Parker as the creator of what the world knows as “Elvis,” to the point of blurring the line where one begins and the other ends. For a moment in the beginning, peering through the eyes of the colonel feels promising. Coupled with Luhrmann’s signature kaleidoscopic visuals (brought to life by cinematographer Mandy Walker and editors Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond), you start to imagine a cinematic cousin to “Velvet Goldmine,” Todd Haynes’ 1998 “Rashomon”-y dream-walk through the life of a singer who’s not David Bowie but also very much David Bowie.
No such imaginative luck. Every moment of “Elvis” near-fatally misjudges the appetite of an audience to trade screen time with Butler for a grating performance by Hanks that lands somewhere between Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor” and Joel Grey’s devilish Emcee in “Cabaret.” (Elvis’ life story as a “Cabaret” riff? Now there’s an idea.) There’s little reward for this trick, right up to the long film’s exhausted final moments.
Luhrmann better reads the cultural room in the way “Elvis” handles race. There is likely no perfect way to celebrate a man who prospered as his progenitors went long unrecognized by a white supremacist America. The film knows to lay plain the racism that both coddled Presley and curdled on him.
Presley’s own relationship to the Black community is depicted as unambiguously positive; the truth in such a depiction has been debated before, and will continue to be debated. But crucially, “Elvis” names and celebrates the artists whose styles he synthesized or appropriated, featuring modern artists who carry their torch today.
Alton Mason as Little Richard, Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton and Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe all perform powerfully, as does Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr. as bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. “Elvis” does not deign to give them dialogue of significance, though, in favor of glossy musical cameos. (Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s B.B. King is an exception; he serves as Presley’s counselor and shepherd into the barrooms of Beale Street, which cozies right up to an unfortunate cinematic trope.)
It’s great that these artists are here. You’re left thinking they should have had more — screentime, chances to speak, agency — which regrettably is the point, regardless of directorial intent.
Even amid real-world concerns, there's fantasy in a Luhrmann movie. "Elvis” never finds purchase in reality for too long before it reverts to a fevered fairy tale. The colors between frames of casinos and carnivals and honky-tonks spill like shattered stained-glass milkshakes. Postcards come alive to set scenes, and because Luhrmann can’t help himself, Doja Cat’s voice wafts among pinstripe suits and pearls.
Butler luxuriates in the spell of Elvis Presley. He conceals revolution in his trousers, and onstage, he lets slip the hound dogs of a culture war.
Maybe you grew up with tales of a long-lost King who shared the Tupelo soil in your blood. Or you remember his reign firsthand, or he’s as real to you as the sword in the stone. While watching the two-ton movie that is “Elvis,” that might be all the better.
No matter the interpretation, the power of a myth like this never left the building.
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Rated: PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, smoking and suggestive material
Running time: 2 hours, 39 minutes
Watch: In theaters