ELVIS REVIEW: AUSTIN BUTLER IS KING BUT TOM HANKS ALMOST SINKS THIS BEAUTIFULLY CHAOTIC MESS

We all know the name. Elvis. Some may remember the first time they heard him while others just knew he was always in their lives. He is so embedded in our pop-culture that life is unfamiliar without him. A man larger than life and with stories that have been changed numerous times over the years, Elvis is and will always be in enigma. To think of Elvis is almost to fantasize. How could anybody other than the man himself capture who he truly was. There have been many attempts before to re-create Elvis’ life and most all of them have failed one way or the other. Although it is practically an impossible task to achieve yet another director is reaching for the stars. Baz Luhrmann best known for his flamboyant and extravagant films claims to be a gigantic fan of the king of rock ‘n’ roll. With his new film ELVIS, Luhrmann does what he does best, take reality and create absurdity. Elvis may also be the first film since Adam Driver got cast in Star Wars or Tom Holland as Spider-Man that a relativity unknown actor will be shot into instant fame. Austin Butler who was probably best known off Twitter fandom as a guest star on recurring Disney channel shows is given the biggest opportunity to prove to any naysayers what he can do. ELVIS is his “Star is Born” moment. ELVIS at almost three hours is a glorious, chaotic and very messy tribute to someone that can never be fully understood. Full of all the staples that make Luhrmann’s films memorable (not always for the best reasons) which include, glamorous costumes, whip panning editing and a soundtrack full of top 40 pop stars. Some may end up wanting more from this unconventional biopic while others will leave quite exhausted. If this is the latest attempt to bring Elvis into the modern world (not that he needs it) then it sure leaves a mark. Even if it’s not entirely a film fit for a king.

ELVIS wants to prove from the start that it’s going to stand out from classic and cliched musician biopics. It does not begin with the birth of Elvis but rather the death of the man who may have made him and the one who may have also killed him. Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) is not only our narrator he practically becomes our main focus. Hanks dressed in poor prosthetics practically resembles Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers series and his attempt at the accent is not doing him any favors either. Panning any film or performance is never fun, but knowing a film is quite long and instantly being given whatever Hanks is doing is not a great place to start. There even becomes a part of you that quickly worries that Luhrmann pulled a hat trick and is going to make Elvis just a supporting player. Thankfully this is not the case because even as we learn of Parker’s origin as a “snowman” in the carnival world, Elvis is always in the background just waiting to be unreleased. An early scene with Parker trying to work with one of his early acts, Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama” plays on a record and once Parker learns he is a white man completely changes his focus onto him and thankfully the film shifts gears. Enter Austin freaking Butler. Butler does not impersonate Elvis but chooses to redefine him and expel every ounce of swagger and charisma that instantly wins over any crowd. Yes Butler has the voice down and the hip jiggle but he is expertly carrying every bit of innocence and pain Elvis brought to the stage each time. Luhrmann directs the first stage performance of Elvis as an orgasmic release involving guitars blaring as a room full of impressionable girls scream in delight fainting at the near sight of him. Even if we know the feelings Elvis brought to many at first, Luhrmann still wants us to quake in our seats and laugh at both the audience in the film and ourselves as we too want to rip at Butler’s clothes.

ELVIS the film, just like a compilation album also has to play all the hits. However the story (one that must have been a pain to storyboard) jumps around never sitting still for a moment. Elvis visits Beale Street to hang out with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) then flashes back to his upbringing in Mississippi, and even quickly jumps into the future to his Vegas residency. All this happens quite early on and no moment is fully expanded on. It’s actually a smart choice to just give us glimpses especially when the subject’s story has been beaten to death. It is also here that we only hear segments of Butler singing Elvis songs. Instead current artists such as Doja Cat, Swae Lee and Diplo get to play out their own remixes versions. ELVIS is a theater experience through and through as these songs slam through the bass and the editing spins around like a record. It’s a fast paced first half of a Wikipedia page as some more important events such as Elvis’ re-recordings of Black artists and profiting of their own songs is hardly discussed. Even when the film gives a prolonged moment where Elvis attends a Beale Street party where Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) and Little Richard (Alton Mason who deserves to lead a Little Richard biopic) perform you can’t help but feel that there is a much bigger theme of stolen art and appropriation that deserves to be told. However like every bio on Elvis this unfortunately just remains a footnote. The film, editing and even Parker’s obnoxious voice does not slow down until after we’ve already seen Elvis get his Memphis mansion, get drafted to Germany and find love with Priscilla Presley (a greatly underused Olivia DeJonge).

If things are already giving you a migraine (or even better a cinematic high) then be prepared as the film still wants to have a total blast. Hanks’ Parker falls into the background and Butler shines as he is in full form showing us the fun side of Elvis’ soon to be decline. Like most musician biopics you won’t be blamed (for now) for enjoying all the fun times even if it was at the severe health risk of our subject. A montage involving learning about Elvis’ entourage gives the film its lightest and quite funniest moment. All this to prepare you for the inevitable pushback against the Colonel and a shining moment that will for sure be used for Butler’s Oscar clip. This segment involving Elvis refusing to do a taped Christmas special and instead sing an original song about the ongoing hatred and violence in America (Martin Luthor King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy’s death are the catalyst) is not just the most powerful moment of the film it is pure evidence that Butler is the first actor to take on the king and be worthy of the name. This followed by yet another montage involving his well known Vegas residency is Luhrmann at his best.

Unfortunately the film’s main problems seek back and bring the film back to conventional standards and with almost an hour left. Hanks’ Parker has reached cartoonish villain at this point and while it’s tough to watch anyone decline it’s hard to have the same empathy when Hanks is never able to deliver a believable threat to Butler’s powerhouse performance. The film also then suffers from the same issues that have plagued musician biopic films for the past two decades. It doesn’t learn that this has all been done before. Whether it be Elvis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday or Aretha Franklin there’s only so much repetition that one can take. Fully riddled with underused female characters, real archive footage and those pesky credit title sequences ELVIS practically undoes everything Luhrmann succeeded at. Nonetheless ELVIS will give you a rush of energy that will hold you through summer and lose you (and then win you back ) by the time awards season comes around. While honoring the late king may in itself be harmful (how does one buy merchandise knowing it’s one of the many things Parker used to control Elvis) there is still a lot to admire and just the way he came into our lives Butler will now become a house hold name and face. It may be too early to tell if he will be big winner but he sure has succeeded at something that was practically impossible. Not a bad place to start right in the shadow of the King.

B

ELVIS WILL BE RELEASED IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE JUNE 24

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