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‘Elvis’ Review: Austin Butler Is Electrifying in an Otherwise Boring, Overstuffed Biopic

2/5 hip shimmies

Austin Butler as Elvis, sitting at a piano looking directly into the camera to his side.

In Baz Luhrmann’s new movie, Austin Butler gives a phenomenal performance as Elvis Presley. His take on the iconic music star is half uncanny impersonation and half dazzling original creation. His physical and vocal impressions of the King are electrifying, and Butler’s entire performance is grounded with heartwrenching emotional depth.

That is, unfortunately, just about the only good thing I can say about Elvis, which is as glitzed-out and overstuffed as you’d expect from a Luhrmann film, but not in a fun way—and I say that as someone who generally enjoys Lurmann’s specific brand of campy mess. But this movie is as devoid of joy as it is a point of view, to the extent that it’s hard not to wonder why Luhrmann even wanted to make it in the first place.

Elvis is standard biopic fare, tracing the musician’s life from childhood through his death, hitting on all the major events in between—his stint in the military, his marriage and subsequent divorce, the more embarrassing career phases before his eventual reinvention, and his downfall fueled by overwork and prescription drug addiction. But Luhrmann also makes the bizarre choice to center the movie around Elvis’ manipulative and financially abusive manager Colonel Tom Parker, framing him as a scheming Iago figure who narrates the story in direct address to us, the audience, throughout. 

With The Colonel, Luhrmann has done the unforgivable in allowing Tom Hanks to give a bad performance. “Bad” is a massive understatement, actually. This is straight-up embarrassing. As The Colonel, Hanks adds himself to the list of actors still apparently willing to wear fat suits, his face immobile under layers of prosthetics. As if the direct-address conceit weren’t silly and jarring enough on its own, Hanks speaks in a heavily accented, breathy lilt that, while distracting, could be forgiven if it were at least accurate for the character, but it’s not. This is the movie Hanks contracted COVID-19 while filming and I feel confident saying it was most definitely not worth it in the end.

Beyond all of that, the most egregious crime Luhrmann committed with this movie is that he made an entire two-hour-and-forty-minute film about how the superstar built his entire career on the backs of Black artists without ever actually saying anything about it. It’s not like Luhrmann tries to ignore that fact—he presents it in great detail, how Elvis was inspired by Black musicians and Black culture, how he took their songs and made more money off of them than those artists could, and played them to a wider audience than they had access to. It’s that Luhrmann tells us that story without ever giving any indication of having a point of view on it, which is, of course, its own point of view nonetheless.

(image: Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.