- Nate Adams
'Elvis' review: Austin Butler gyrates though messy Baz Luhrmann biopic
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
In the opening minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s dizzying, bloated and misguided biopic about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, you quickly learn it’s not even told from his perspective, rather that of his shady and evil manager Colonel Tom Parker (who is played by Tom Hanks decked out in a fat suit, heavy prosthetics, and an accent which borders on cartoonish) and there’s an immediate, sinking feel of doom that comes thereafter. Luhrmann, stepping behind the camera for the first time in nearly a decade, is known for his lavish, off-the-cuff, Adderall infused madness.
The “Moulin Rouge” auteur plays by a very specific set of big and flashy rules where the blunt force of watching his films can leave you with cinematic whiplash. Anyone purchasing a ticket probably already knows that, but his signature style isn’t a fitting tribute for the King, it’s all over the place and, running a staggering 165-minutes, feels completely misguided. This despite an electric performance from upcomer Austin Butler who nails the cadence and rock star presence better than even the most pessimistic Presley fans could have predicted. In other words, it’s a mixed bag.
The world is more plentiful with filmmakers like Luhrmann infusing their signature style into them, but “Elvis” stutters and starts more often then it captivates. Offering little substance for newcomers and providing Wikipedia-esq insights into the rise of Presley’s stardom who began his career on the carnival circuit after Parker “discovered” him on the road. Hanks, in choppy voice overs, details the accounts as if he’s some misunderstood villain trying to reframe the truth so you’ll sympathize with him. And, as is typical in Lurmann’s orbit, the soundtrack is densely populated with contemporary music though nothing quite reaches the apex of the Lana Del Ray anthem “Young & Beautiful” from “The Great Gatsby.”
For the entire runtime, there isn’t a single shot of “Elvis” that isn’t coked-up on “Looney Tunes” energy and Luhrmann overextends his hand any chance he gets. At least the Elvis covers by Butler shines through the chaos, the actor delivering somber and soothing portrayals of “Suspicious Minds,” and gyrating his way through staples “Hounddog” and countless others. Lurhmann knows what he’s working with, but artistic decisions to speed through his early life in Tupelo, Mississippi until his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and putting more emphasis on Parker never seems like the right decision. Sequences featuring Kelvin Harrison Jr’s B.B. King, Kodi Smit-Mcphee’s Jimmie Rodger Snow, and Alton Mason’s Little Richard barely make a blip on the Luhrmann radar.
On the other hand, “Elvis” comes alive when it gives Butler a moment to breathe and feel out the scene, bringing down the house with his rendition of “If I Can Dream” from the comeback special that rejuvenated the musician’s career. Everything else is sensory overload to the highest degree which can make dated material (see the aforementioned “Great Gatsby”) feel timely and fresh, but when dealing with the King, it becomes an easy case for why style over substance can be a bad thing. “Bohemian Rhapsody” this is not and the Presley family has given the film their stamp of approval and who can blame them when you have someone as talented as Butler proving his casting was no fluke. He’s magnetic and worth the price of admission, but have the Dramamine stocked for when the credits, after almost three hours, finally begin to roll.
ELVIS is now playing in theaters.