Austin Butler is phenomenal in Baz Luhrmann’s rock biopic as the titular king of rock and roll in the newly released Elvis.
Filmmakers have not learned a single thing since the release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story in December 2007. Baz Lurhmann attempts to shake up the rock biopic genre but at the end of the day, the efforts fall short. The film is at its best when Austin Butler is rocking and wiggling out on stage. But if that’s what someone wants to watch, all they need to do is just get their hands on one of the Elvis Presley concert specials. That’s not to say that this is a bad film because there are things that one can appreciate about it.
One of the biggest problems with the film is that it’s not framed through Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) but his villain manager Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The other thing is that the film suffers in the same way that most biopics. Instead of focusing on a singular time in Presley’s life, the film spans his entire adulthood. The 60s come down to a montage although there’s a big focus on 1968. We see how the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Sr. impact Elvis. Their deaths result in the penning of a protest song, “If I Can Dream,” for the 1968 comeback special on NBC. If the filmmakers were wise, they would have placed a singular focus on 1968. At least, this is what I would have done!
The soundtrack rocks because just about every song in this film is a hit song. Many of them are on Elvis: 30 #1 Hits, a 2002 compilation album that hit #1. Elvis doesn’t ignore the inspiration of his songs–the mixture of country music with rhythm and blues. If not for him, many of these songs might never have reached their levels of popularity in the mainstream. Of course, this just speaks to the racism of the day. Col. Parker initially has no interest in Elvis as an act until he learns he’s a white musician. As Elvis started growing popular in the 50s, there were politicians that wanted to ban him from the TV and stage. I mean, he either could have gone to jail or join the Army. Parker persuaded the government to have Presley join the military. If not for this, he might never meet Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).
In a perfect world, the King would be approaching his 90th birthday in three years. From where I sit, this is what is so hard to believe because he’s mainly associated with a period spanning the 50s through early 70s. It was sad watching Elvis Presley singing “Unchained Melody” preceding the credits. He didn’t look like the Elvis of his youth but rather someone who was probably in his 50s or 60s. Blame the toll that drugs and his eating habits took. Which, of course, can also be blamed on Col. Parker. Parker abused him financially and this shows. Anyway, the film weaves between footage of Butler’s Elvis with the real one.
Parker is the real villain. He’s quite the character but I don’t agree in framing the film through his lens. There would be a much stronger film if not for this aspect. Baz Luhrmann is directing this film in the most Baz Luhrmann way possible. For me, it falls a bit short of being a Best Picture contender. It’s a bit too much on the long side. Again, this is because Luhrmann spans Presley’s entire adulthood, albeit with some montages. No moment with the Million Dollar Quartet is an automatic letdown. Even though Elvis went into the movies, there’s not much if anything here on Elvis the movie star outside of the montage scenes.
An impressive feat is recreating Graceland for the screen. Instead of shooting in Memphis, they recreated the exteriors overseas. Of course, the interiors change from the time Presley moves in until his later years. The production design is phenomenal in this respect. Given the home’s preservation, they have to do their best here because otherwise, fans will know if something is probably off. Of course, their biggest challenge is finding just the right area that can match the Memphis landscape. You also have the recreation of Beale Street, which is just as impressive. Beyond this, there are so many times where they are recreating concert specials, TV performances, etc. and match it moment for moment in both lighting and lensing.
My own thoughts on the film not withstanding, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie Presley, and Riley Keough have given the film a ringing endorsement. There is no disagreement from me in that Austin Butler is a solid contender for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Musical biopics have a way of delivering some of the best performances of the year. I would personally choose a singular focus on a short period in Presley’s life but regardless, Austin Butler is a revelation. That being said, Butler only sings the songs in the years before 1960. However, there are times where it’s a mix of Butler and the King. After this, it’s the real Elvis Presley doing the singing.
Forty-five years after his tragic death at 42 years old, Elvis Presley remains the best-selling solo artist of all time. This is quite the legacy for the King of Rock and Roll. Austin Butler has to fill some pretty big shoes here but he manages to pull it off in the material that Baz Luhrmann gives him.
DIRECTOR: Baz Luhrmann
SCREENWRITERS: Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromell and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner
CAST: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Xavier Samuel, David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey
Warner Bros. released Elvis in theaters on June 24, 2022. Grade: 3.5/5
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