de facto film reviews 2.5 stars

How does an actor go about playing Elvis Presley? More than a man or a musician, Elvis is a mythological rock ‘n’ roll legend who has always lived on in our collective consciousness. Yet in the hurried and sprawling rock biopic Elvis, Austin Butler, the 30-year-old former Disney actor who also played an impressive supporting role as Manson Family Member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, stars as the musical icon Elvis Presley and plays the role with passion and fervor. Capturing his demeanor and mannerisms, Butler elevates the performance away from impersonation, and he plays the role and captures Elvis’s demeanor quite well–both emotionally and physically. There is nothing in Butler’s performance that will take you out of the movie. Sadly, the same can’t be said with Baz Luhrman’s overstuffed direction that takes the same routine biopic trappings that we have become so accustomed to over the years.

Even with Luhrman’s unconventional style that is energetic and dizzying, especially in the first hour, the script hits a lot of the same tiresome notes we have witnessed before in countless other biopics, and the result feels hurried as Luhrman and his fellow co-writers, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner, overstuff the material to the point where the third act in Vegas–where Elvis begins to embark on his demise–never ignites or feels as involving as the first half. The end result is mostly a bloated biopic that never quite reaches the innovation, visual splendor, or dramatic impact that the material is capable of.

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A film that explores fragments of Elvis’s life, through the narration of the man responsible for his stardom: Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a carnival charlatan, who wasn’t really a colonel and who was an immigrant from the Netherlands, who observed Elvis’s full potential and instantly seized the opportunity to become his manager. Colonel Tom Parker actually guides the viewer through the journey of Elvis, not Elvis (Austin Butler), which is a wise move on Luhrman’s part because he keeps Elvis from a distance, while humanizing the icon and making him feel larger-than-life at the same time. Hanks’ heavily thick accent (and prosthetics) recalls his work in Steven Spielberg’s Terminal, but he becomes more of a caricature this time around, and his narration if filled with many self-rationalized insights, and other undependable details.

Sadly, Hank’s narration and onscreen presence overwhelm Butler’s skillful performance. While it’s so easy to impersonate Elvis, many actors have parodied him throughout the years with long sideburns, a jelly roll haircut, and a “thank you, thank you very much.” Butler’s performance is elevated away from impersonation and caricature, and Butler delivers a very convincing and vulnerable performance that is filled with self-doubt. Only on stage, is Elvis able to be himself. Butler portrays the charisma and vulnerabilities with genuine grace. Even when Elvis is strong-out and on pills, isolating himself in the Vegas hotel room (as he’s addicted to pills), there is still a certain dignity to the performance where you always feel empathy for a man who eventually feels into his own self-destruction while endlessly being a pawn to his manager.

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What follows suit is the historical moments of key pivotal moments of the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. that have become routine and feel more like a cinematic history reel. They serve more as a navigational device for the audience to know what year they are in. Luhrman certainly delivers his maximalist directing style with intense camera movements, stylized lighting, and other editing techniques that transition shots together that still feel like abrupt cuts. The style actually makes the film highly watchable, along with Butler’s performance, yet the problematic character of Hanks and the biopic cliches make the film feel thematically cluttered and narratively scattered.

While there is commentary to be found about how Elvis culturally appropriated black music for his white audiences, Luhrman also examines how he had a fondness for the music. It’s a very pivotal moment in the film and also some of the most compelling. However, Luhrman just skims over and ventures into another chapter of Elvis’s life with the Colonel. It’s here where Luhrman’s style somewhat becomes a detriment to the material, while at the same type it spices it up from being dull. Luhrman’s portrait of Elvis is inspired by the music of black blues players on Beale Street as well as other places in and around Memphis, but it just feels skimmed over like many other elements in the storytelling that prevent it from fully igniting. We see a performance of Houng Dog by Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) and performances by B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) that explores Elvis’s fondness and love for gospel and blues. Determined to make money for his audience to support his mother, Elvis begins getting his songs played on the radio and starts playing at small gigs.

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One of the most effective moments in the film, is how Luhrman stages one of Elvis’s opening acts in front of an audience. At first, Elvis appears very frigid and insecure on stage–only for him to suddenly break out and dance after an audience yells out an insult. Luhrman actually delivers a more visceral approach to the material as he cuts to Elvis moving his hips, utilizing his dance moves, and even showing shots of his crotch area as he crosscuts to the teenybopper female fans’ reactions, who are experiencing uncertain emotions they haven’t felt before. It is there that Colonel Tom Parker takes an instant interest in representing Elvis.

Sadly, Elvis eventually slips into familiar biopic terrain. We see the routine rise and fall beats–how his artistry overtook the man and how he alienated everyone else around him. His mother (Helen Thomas) dies in very cliched fashion. Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is the archetype wife that grows distant from Elvis. Eventually, Luhrman’s style slows down, and Luhrman fails to do anything revelatory or impressive to make the material feel alive, despite already knowing the inevitable outcome.

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As the film goes on, Elvis is trapped and has resorted to just performing in Vegas as he yearns to have a world wide tour simply because Colonel Parker uses these shows to pay off debts that he owes to some Vegas businessmen. The exchanges between Parker and Elvis have their fair share of moments to behold, and the actors certainly fill their roles. While Hanks has often struggled to play a more villainous role—it’s a very stylized performance that upholds Luhrman’s love and preference for artifice. Though the character does suffocate the material—it would be quite curious to see this film from Elvis’s perspective and how it would play out. Once Elvis grows further into an abyss of isolation–Luhrman reveals how Elvis got addicted to pills and how the only real enjoyment he endured was on the stage in front of his fans. After locking himself into a hotel, Priscilla eventually leaves him, and Elvis gets more addicted and heavier.

Ultimately, Baz Luhrman ends up becoming his own worst enemy in his attempt to carve out a successful biopic of Elvis’s history. With his rapid and flashy style, he skims through his life, falling into biopic trappings and melodramatic detours at an overly rapid pace that feels overstuffed in the many decades it covers. The film moves too quickly, yet with all that running time, you walk away wishing Luhrman would have spent more time in a certain era, and in a quick blink of an eye, you can miss so much of what’s in the narrative. There are certainly pleasures to be found; there is so much in Elvis’s life one filmmaker can cover, and Luhrman delivers his style and finds his rhythm, yet most of the vignettes never feel cohesive or well-constructed; the result is a slight and disappointing one, especially when the film has so much going for it.