For all its trademark Baz Luhrmann flash and dazzle (of which there is plenty), Elvis is always at its best and most memorable when it’s pulling off that most timeless of Hollywood tricks; letting you witness a star be born in front of your very eyes. In a delightfully meta touch, it happens here at the first public performance given by a young Elvis Presley where, as Elvis explodes on to the cultural scene of ‘50s America, so too does his portrayer, Austin Butler, catapult himself into true movie stardom, a bravura introduction to one of the year’s best lead performances.
With the exception of a couple of childhood flashbacks, Butler carries us through all the pivotal moments of Elvis’s life, from these teenage performances to his dying days – fat, sweaty, yet still magnificent – trapped on a Vegas stage, and he’s magnetic throughout. Given Luhrmann’s hyperactive montage style (which is, mostly, what the Elvis story does call for), it can be hard to fit a real performance into one of his movies, but Butler paints a full picture of the man and the legend, a display made all the more impressive when put next to Tom Hanks’s bizarre pantomime act as Colonel Tom Parker.
Luhrmann’s story moves at 100 miles an hour from start to finish, giving precious few of the supporting actors time enough to really make an impression before they leave Elvis’s life, but the grounding throughline of it all is Elvis’s relationship with Parker, a sinister father figure who took The King for all he was worth, while working him into an early grave. It’s a cartoon villain role even on the page, but Hanks leans so far into this that it’s often actively hard to watch as he scurries around the screen with his strange accent and a fatsuit, often resembling a runaway Punch & Judy puppet.
This leaves it up to Butler to often save the film from itself, or at least from his second-billed co-star, a task he rises to time and again, electrifying when Elvis is on stage and genuinely affecting during the melancholy moments of his private life, deploying an emotional openness that stops his Elvis mannerisms from becoming just pure impression. There’s a scene close to the end that’s as moving as anything Luhrmann has ever done, slowing down all the glitz and pizazz to just bask in Butler’s performance, a gamble that pays off immensely well.
That’s not to say that there’s any shortage of glitz, though, or that this flashy indulgence is ever a hindrance to Elvis. Luhrmann’s maximalism hasn’t been this well-suited to his material since Romeo + Juliet; every single musical performance (from Elvis or the litany of black musicians that inspired him) is just magic, especially the raucous concert scenes. To his ‘50s audiences, Elvis was both the hillbilly second coming of Christ and the inventor of sex and Luhrmann shoots these scenes as such, moments of mass worship that often crescendo into orgiastic seas of young women driven wild with lust.
It’s ludicrous, yes, but Luhrmann knows when to play for laughs and when to treat it sincerely. His script doesn’t often dig beneath Elvis’s surface – he trusts Butler to do that himself and knows exactly when to shut up and let a smouldering close-up do the talking – but it does revive a side of Elvis that is often forgotten in the modern conceptions of his sex appeal and cultural appropriation – that of a man who simply loved music. Here, his cribbing from Black culture is never understated (many of his songs are word-for-word taken from Black gospel and rhythm-and-blues singers), but also not cynical, Elvis simply presenting to the world the art that inspires him the most deeply.
It all adds up to one hell of a show, one that might be overlong but is ferociously entertaining throughout. The lows of Hanks’s performance are very low, and upsettingly frequent (if he were used more sparingly, his oddness could have perhaps made for some more enjoyable comic relief), but the highs are so soaring, and Butler is so astonishing, that it’s impossible to not recommend seeing this on the biggest, loudest screen possible.