It’s the ‘hustle and bustle’ that catches your eye in ‘Elvis’. But it’s the swagger and allure of Austin Butler, pushing his way through a star turn as Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley, that rocks you all. in Baz Luhrmann’s whirling dervish musical biopic, “Elvis.”
Conceived by Baz Luhrmann (“The Great Gatsby,” “Moulin Rouge”), the film is a whirlwind of sights, sounds, and cozy jewel-encrusted combinations. And true to its larger-than-life subject, Luhrmann throws away all but the kitchen sink as he recounts the king’s rise to wealth and sad decline during his 42 years.
It’s the typical cradle-to-grave depiction, much of it rote for Elvis diehards. But for the uninitiated, it recounts how sudden fame was for the only son of Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) and Gladys (Helen Thomson) Presley of Tupelo, Miss. As a teenager, Elvis and his parents moved to Memphis, where he sought musical refuge. on Beale Street alongside his friends BB King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola).
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Outrage over his “lewd turns” ensued and racial tensions surfaced. To win more favor from dismayed parents, Elvis enlisted in the army and was sent to Germany. Upon his return, his sketchy film career ensued, followed by the energetic 1968 television special and his eventual 1969 return to the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Fat Elvis also enters the building. It’s all there, propped up on the screen via newspaper headlines, animations, archival footage, and close-ups of photographs and objects. You name it, Luhrmann unleashes it with wild-eyed glory. Call it a visual feast, but it’s really just cinematic ADHD, pumped with energy and ambition masking narrative gaps.
The greater liability is the choice to tell the story of Elvis through the perspective of its dubious and longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Played by Tom Hanks, the Colonel is a self-proclaimed “snowman”, as being adept at “snow work”. Nothing but a crook in a Fedora, Parker, a former carnival huckster, claims he “gave the world Elvis Presley,” but all he did was lie, cheat, steal and to work the young singer like a mule. The film comes to a screeching halt whenever it focuses on Parker, a role that doesn’t suit an actor as sweet and good-natured as Hanks. As for Elvis’ rocky marriage to his teenage wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), it seems inconsequential at best.
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With a duration of 159 minutes, the film seems endless. In Act III, the script by Luhrmann and Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, shifts unabashedly to melodramatic, with Elvis hitting rock bottom and everyone around him crying.
The film is full of on-the-nose metaphors, such as Parker guiding a lost Elvis through a carnival house. Ultimately, Luhrmann displays a love for his subject matter, redeeming himself with a tender, emotionally moving finale that I won’t spoil. There are also many other high notes. The relationship between Elvis and his mother is portrayed gracefully. Elvis was a mama’s boy and was not at all ashamed of it. Their scenes together are some of the strongest in the film.
As expected, there’s a parade of hit songs: “Suspicious Minds”, “Hound Dog”, “Heartbreak Hotel”… aforementioned from Elvis to Beale Street.
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At the heart of it all is Butler. Every time he performs – it’s mostly him singing – the film skyrockets. Offstage, Butler has the smooth cadence of Elvis. He’s not impersonating; it captures the essence. And the jiggle.
Elvis has been dead for 45 years, three years longer than he lived. Yet the King still means a lot to many people. I didn’t grow up with Elvis, but the film helps put the phenomenon into perspective and reintroduces his music. Whatever apprehensions one may have about “Elvis”, there is no denying his visceral impact.
Evaluation: R for drug addiction, foul language, suggestive material, and smoking
Cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Luke Bracey, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kodi Smit-McPhee
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner
Operating time: 159 minutes
Where to watch: In theaters June 23
To note: B
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Contact Dana Barbuto at [email protected]