As soon as the film begins, it’s clear that Baz Luhrmann has pulled out all the stops to make this as dizzying and visually extravagant as possible. Sweeping camera movements and surreal transitions drenched in glamorous lights and rhinestones are extremely fitting for such a showman, but a film like this easily could’ve collapsed under its own spectacle. Luckily, Austin Butler is more than fit to carry the load, delivering one of the year’s absolute best performances in this definitive and moving biopic.
Though the movie is more or less framed through the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (Presley’s viciously parasitic “business partner” played ghoulishly by Tom Hanks) the film remains deeply focused on Elvis, and it should, because Butler is so unbelievably magnetic, I frankly wouldn’t have been interested in watching any scenes without him. The way he’s able to carry this movie for over 2.5 hours is nothing short of magnificent. From the very start, Butler’s performance had me hooked. Maybe it’s the extensively studied and perfectly executed mannerisms, or maybe it’s his beautiful singing. Maybe it’s just his deeply infectious smile and that seductive look in his eyes that is painfully reminiscent of the King himself. All of it comes together to paint a stunning portrait of Elvis Aaron Presley, a man whose swagger and rebellious attitude changed music culture forever. As Butler takes care of business, his devotion to the role is abundantly clear. There are even points in the movie that I was fully convinced were actual clips of Presley. If that’s not enough, go listen to any of the praise given by the Presley family and you’ll see what this portrayal means to his most devoted fans. Butler’s performance is not only respectful to the legend, but also a glorious celebration of his unique energy and power as a performer and an icon.
Where Elvis falters is with occasionally clunky writing and some uneven pacing. What starts as a rapidly paced rocket to the top devolves into a jumbled collection of isolated moments as it nears the end of his life, as is a common pitfall for biopics. Fortunately, this part of the story is handled delicately, maintaining Presley’s dignity in the face of one of show business’s most famously farced deaths. With any film like this, decisions must be made about what is necessary to tell the story. Does this film paint the full picture? No, and how could it? Presley was an incredibly complex figure who had a difficult relationship with the culture he borrowed from and the one he helped create. This film makes its attempts, but more could always be done, especially for one this long. In its defense, this is an impressionistic film and no other character besides Presley and The Colonel are given much screen time, although there are some promising supporting performances I would’ve enjoyed seeing more of, mainly Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the legendary B.B. King, Dacre Montgomery as storied producer Steve Binder and Alton Mason, who completely steals a scene with his electric performance as Little Richard. Nonetheless, all the music and Butler’s tour de force are more than enough to lift this film to lofty heights. As he dons the iconic haircut and flashy costumes, it’s impossible to not believe Butler was born to play the King.
Luhrmann’s offering isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to love and it’s certainly a good time (people are certainly going to be dancing and singing in your showing so get ready for that). Butler’s performance is one for the ages and you can certainly expect to hear his name a lot come awards season, so grab your family and get to a theater this weekend to see Elvis!
P.S. Do yourself a favor and see this one in Dolby!