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Film Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a triumph for Austin Butler, not quite for Tom Hanks

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — What has not been said or written about Elvis Presley? At the height of his fame and even before his 1977 demise, “the King” had already been the subject of countless stories and books, with those increasing in subsequent years. Thus, when news of director Baz Luhrmann doing his own take on the legend with Elvis, there was a healthy amount of skepticism on whether Luhrmann and his choice for the title role could pull it off.

It is 1997 and Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) is looking back at the life of the man he once managed. Parker recalls the first time he sees a young Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) and how the kid turned a crowd upside down with a performance that had never been seen before. Parker says that Presley’s upbringing, coming from a poor white family in Mississippi and influenced by black music, provided a unique opportunity.

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The Colonel proceeds to systematically insert himself into every facet of Elvis’ life, taking over managing the young man’s career from his parents Gladys (Helen Thomson) and Vernon (Richard Roxburgh). The combination of Elvis’ raw sex appeal, electric live performances, and crossover appeal for both whites and blacks brings success and riches as well as controversy and condemnation.

Parker takes hold of Elvis’ finances while manipulating how the singer is received by the American public. The former even gets Elvis to agree to make movies despite being so horrible and forgettable to keep himself in the public eye. To avoid further controversy, Parker also gets Elvis drafted into the US Army for a couple of years.

After falling in love with Priscilla Beaulieu (Olivia DeJonge), Elvis resumes making music and bad movies but is crushed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Marrying Priscilla and starting a family, Elvis aches to fire Parker and speak out on social issues.

Not even the success of his 1968 comeback special done largely without Parker’s approval can keep Elvis from chafing under the manager’s tight grip. Elvis keeps trying to extricate himself from Parker, only for the latter to keep finding ways to maintain his control while feeding his voracious gambling habit.

This eventually eats away at Elvis’ personal life and turns him into a shadow of his former self. All the while, Parker squeezes everything he can out of the singer, even if it means injecting him with drugs to keep him performing in Las Vegas.

The triumph and tragedy of Elvis Presley has been chronicled in books and TV specials in the past. The King of Rock and Roll has had countless impersonators mimicking his outfits, his gyrations on stage, and his famous voice and drawl that combined to make him a global icon.

For his take on Elvis, Luhrmann combines mythmaking with a lot of artistic license, while surprisingly paying tribute to the African-American music that so clearly influenced Presley. The images of a young Elvis acting possessed while listening to the blues is more than likely an exaggeration and not based on fact. That scene perhaps signified what the rest of Luhrmann’s interpretation would be.

Elvis tries to encapsulate the meteoric rise of Presley as well as his eventual downfall and subsequent death in under three hours. As is the challenge in any biopic, Luhrmann had to pick and choose certain moments and events in The King’s life to focus on to present a snapshot of just how important he was in history.

That is never easy, although what makes this film bearable is the combination of Butler’s performance, Hanks’ prosthetics and attempt to show Parker for the charlatan he is, and the sheer volume of Presley’s music that is hopefully seen in a whole new light.

Before this motion picture, the only other role that I recall Butler in was as the lead in the two-season adaptation of The Shannara Chronicles from 2016-2017. In Elvis, Butler has far removed the half-human/half-elf Wil Ohmsford and actually feels comfortable channeling the spirit of The King.

From the moment he steps on the stage in a loud pink suit and starts gyrating, all the way to the very end when he plays an out-of-shape Elvis barely hanging on in Las Vegas, Butler is magnetic onscreen. It was critical that Butler’s performance not fall into parody territory or the entire film could be seen as a comedy with a bad impressionist.

Instead, the film might just be Butler’s coming out party in Hollywood, something that can propel him into regular leading man status.

While Hanks has done it all and holds the acting awards to prove it, it’s hard to get past the prosthetics he dons as well as the pseudo-Dutch accent that Parker was known for. Perhaps Hanks was looking for a new challenge and didn’t want to be the lead for a change. Maybe he saw the chance to play one of the most infamous conmen in history as a character role different from his many starring roles of the past.

No matter his reasons, Hanks does succeed in one thing throughout: he makes the audience absolutely loathe Parker for his subterfuge, manipulation, and undermining of Presley’s life and career for decades. Perhaps because it is indeed Hanks who performs the part that Parker is not quite a supporting character in this film. He is instead almost a co-lead with Elvis, and as responsible for the latter’s rise and downfall as the actual man who sang and performed.

Luhrmann also succeeds in capturing the spirit of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s beyond just the hairstyles and fashions of the time. As Elvis’ life progresses through these decades and things begin spiraling out of his control, the introduction of drugs and alcohol into his life mirror his virtual imprisonment at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.

While his jumpsuits and performances became ever louder, his health and personal life deteriorated because Parker refused to allow him to escape from under his thumb. This is the tragedy at the heart of Elvis’ real life and this film. For all of his fame and fortune as well as the adulation he got from millions, in the end, none of it could save Elvis from a man he entrusted with his life.

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