Movie Review: ELVIS Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson
Towards the end of Elvis, there’s a montage of clips of the real-life Elvis performing, including one of the final renditions of “Unchained Melody” that he performed. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and for a brief moment, I couldn’t tell if I was hearing Elvis or Austin Butler.
That’s how good Austin’s portrayal is. From the moment he first appears on screen, Austin is Elvis. Butler, 30, isn’t exactly a nobody, but this should be the role that establishes him as a star, and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear his name during awards season.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the movie couldn’t keep up. For being a 2 hour, 40-minute movie, it felt like director Baz Luhrmann left so much out while lingering unnecessarily on other specific moments (Baz has confirmed that there is apparently a four-hour cut). And as much as I adore Tom Hanks, his performance as Col. Tom Parker also left me stunned, but not for the right reasons.
Focusing mostly on Elvis’s adulthood, the film spans nearly the entirety of his musical career, from his humble beginnings as an opener on Hank Snow’s tour to his meteoric rise as a musical star/pop culture sensation to global phenomenon all the way to his well-documented descent and death at age 42. Although the film does have a few flashbacks to his childhood, when he first discovers blues and gospel music, the bulk of the action centers around his time as an adult, when Baz can crank up his trademark flashiness and give us the ol’ razzle dazzle as only Baz Luhrmann can. As Elvis begins to take the world by storm, right by his side (and in his pockets) is Parker, who bought out his contract with the tiny Sun Records to sign him to RCA in order to get him national exposure. Although this undoubtedly benefits Elvis, the film makes clear that this was a vampiric, almost Faustian, relationship in which Parker eventually received half of Elvis’s earnings, to the chagrin of Elvis and his wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).
Usually, after a brief synopsis, I tend to list the things I enjoy about the movie before delving into the negatives, but this time, I wanted to delve headfirst into the biggest issue I have with the film: inconsistency. This film is utterly ambitious; in the first hour or so, it does everything to wow the audience, and by and large it succeeds. The flashy visuals, the musical performances, it has it all. But the film also moves impossibly fast at times while slowing to a crawl at others. In the span of roughly a minute, Elvis goes from being an opening act for a country artist to the biggest name in the US. We get a quick flashback of him as a child walking into a black church service and falling under the spell of gospel music, and then forward again to when he’s a star in the making. It’s frenetic at times, but then spends 20-25 minutes on a singular event in his career. Obviously, the film is going to give more weight to the crucial events, and that’s understandable – but there are other moments that feel unnecessarily lengthy and slow the pace down.
Similarly, Baz Luhrmann’s flashy, at times over-the-top visual style is present for much of the first thirty minutes or so before practically disappearing for the rest of the film. And Hanks’s narration as Parker is similarly inconsistent, as is his accent. I found his performance unconvincing at times, and not just because of the body prosthetics or accent. I don’t think he was bad, but it’s definitely not his best work. Perhaps the overall inconsistency is intentional, as the tone of the film shifts from bright and exciting to a darker, more bitter note as the years progress, but the film is almost two films in and of itself, and I wasn’t a fan of that.
On the other hand, Austin Butler is an absolute revelation. Despite the issues I had with the film, they all disappeared instantly the moments Austin steps on stage and utterly wows. Performing the songs himself, Austin absolutely nails just about everything that made Elvis great; his incomparable voice, his showmanship, his intense physical presence on stage. There are ostensibly two musical climaxes to the film, and both of them revolve around Elvis choosing to be himself, and in those moments, Butler is an incredible reminder of the tour de force that Elvis was to the world. These moments alone justify the trip to the theater. The film also lightly addresses some of the social issues and divides of the time, from conservative leaders calling for Elvis’s performances to be banned for being too lascivious to the segregationist laws that prevented other similarly talented musicians from getting the recognition they deserved. I would love to see other musicians of the era get their stories told, and Elvis provided a tantalizing sample of what could be.
Despite my reservations, I found myself enjoying Elvis. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s certainly entertaining, and as I knew little about his life, I found it educational as well. It seems that Elvis’s family – Priscilla, Lisa Marie, and Riley Keough – all appreciated and enjoyed it as well, which is a better endorsement than anything I could ever write. If you’re an Elvis fan, I don’t think you can go wrong here.