The Movie Guru: Austin Butler shining star of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”
Grade: Three and a half stars
Elvis may be dead, but Austin Butler is bringing him back for a little while.
This feat of magic happens in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” opening in theaters this weekend. The movie is an extravagant, insightful, and occasionally scattered look at the king’s life, particularly in how it interacted with his manager Col. Tom Parker. Though Luhrmann’s showmanship is clearly in effect, the movie’s brightest light is Butler’s breathtaking performance as the man himself. It’s an evocation that made three generations of Presley women cry when they saw it, and there’s a good chance it’ll choke you up as well.
The movie is narrated by Parker himself, played with sinister complexity by Tom Hanks. He tells the audience about Elvis’s life as his own is failing, supposedly to convince us that he had nothing to do with Elvis’s death. Presley’s story comes to us in flashes, slowly breaking further and further away from Parker’s voice-over.
I was initially afraid the movie would make excuses for Parker, who is on record as financially abusing Elvis for most of his career. However, Luhrmann has created the most damning indictment of the man I’ve ever seen, letting viewers see his crimes unfold a step at a time. It’s a fascinating take, but it doesn’t mean we don’t get nearly enough Elvis in the early moments. Once the movie settles in, however, the gap between what Parker says and what we actually see is incredibly powerful.
A big part of this is thanks to Butler’s performance as Elvis. The vocal and visual impressions are uncanny — he sings all the early music — but it’s the emotional depth that really gets you. Luhrmann relies on Butler to show us Elvis’s sweetness, his loneliness, and a depth of musical hunger I hadn’t really understood until now. Butler captures it all, turning bare historical fact into a depth of tragedy that will make you wish things could have somehow turned out differently.
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The Luhrmann visual flair is there as well. Elvis speaks mostly through his music, and he stuffs the movie full of lush performances that will make you question what is original and what is re-creation. He has plenty of fun with the Las Vegas flair, but he also brings the world of Beale Street to such vivid life you’ll feel like you can step into it. The director’s vision is so precise and detailed that he even blends Butler’s voice with an older Elvis for later songs, just to make sure his voice is aged accurately.
The songs themselves are incredibly powerful, and even if you’re an Elvis fan you may feel like you’re hearing them for the first time. Butler’s voice is exquisite, and context gives several well-known hits a deeper meaning that lingers. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I do know “Suspicious Minds” has been forever changed for me.
In a lot of ways, my feelings about Elvis have as well. “Elvis” brought him to life for a little while, and now that he’s gone again I miss him that much more.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.