‘Elvis’ doesn’t add much to the King’s life story, except Austin Butler

Austin Butler (left) and Elvis Presley (right) are pictured. Via Wikimedia Commons
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“Elvis” (2022) is, in a word, captivating. From his impoverished childhood in rural Mississippi where he discovered music, his adolescence in Memphis where he frequented Beale Street to his rise to stardom and subsequent crash and burn, “Elvis” takes us through the whole Elvis Presley story, but doesn’t add much to it. Baz Luhrmann, the famed director of “The Great Gatsby” (2013)  and “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), takes a whopping two hours and 39 minutes to tell us what could have mostly been gleaned from a five-minute skim of Presley’s Wikipedia page. Luhrmann does add color here and there, and it’s still a highly enjoyable watch — mainly for Austin Butler’s performance as Presley, an excellent soundtrack and fantastic period costumes — but ultimately, “Elvis” falls short in expanding on the star’s life.

The film, in many places, makes you think more about what it could’ve been than what it is because there’s a lot that goes unsaid. Presley had some problems, to say the least, and in this film, they don’t come to light in the way they should. A big-screen biopic is the perfect opportunity to bring things up, and Luhrmann didn’t take it. Presley’s racial appropriation of music, perhaps, or his abuse of his wife and sexual escapades with underage girls could’ve been explored here but weren’t. Presley is not presented as a perfect person by any means, but these problematic aspects of his character are still largely swept under the rug in the film. 

The film aligns with the classic biopic birth to death structure but deviates by making Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker the star of the show, not Presley. The choice to center the story around Presley’s relationship with Parker was a good one in theory — it had the potential to add new details to the Elvis story we already know — but in practice, it falls flat. Parker, played by a barely recognizable Tom Hanks with a strange accent, a bloated figure and a lot of makeup, is written and played as a kind of mystical character. He’s not actually a colonel, nor is his name actually Tom Parker, and he’s surrounded by an air of sinister mystery for the duration of the film that is never fully explained. When combined with a gaudy cinematography style that emphasizes Vegas, carnivals and a whole lot of red, the Parker thing becomes weirdly eerie. 

With Parker at the forefront, a lot of time is spent making us wonder about him and when we are going to find out the truth — but we never do. That was disappointing and confusing, and it took away from Presley, who the movie is ostensibly about. His relationship with Parker was a big part of his life, of course (and Parker would argue that Presley wouldn’t be Elvis without him), and it was right to give him a key role, but this was just a bit too much. Plus, even though Butler still delivered a killer performance, he didn’t get to shine as much as he could have. Butler, of “Zoey 101″”(2005–2008) and “The Carrie Diaries” (2013–2014), comes into his own in this film in a huge way, but deserved more of the spotlight. A lot of Butler’s scenes feature Parker and Presley going through the various dramas that defined their fraught relationship. Even when the drama isn’t actually between them, Parker seems to be waiting in the wings during all of Presley’s dramatic exchanges. But many of Butler’s best moments as an actor were when he was performing in front of audiences, with Parker nowhere to be found. 

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Even with these questionable choices, the film is certainly not all bad. Though a bit long, it’s an incredible story, incredibly told. Presley’s life story is objectively pretty wild, from childhood poverty to international stardom with a stint in the Army and a marriage in between, which certainly comes through. It’s a great watch, especially for younger audiences who may be experiencing the captivation of Presley for the first time. There are cool costumes and the soundtrack is solid too, with a good mix of Presley classics, covers by assorted artists and original songs. “Vegas” by Doja Cat and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” — a Presley original, covered by Kacey Musgraves — deserve special shoutouts. These redeeming qualities seem like they wouldn’t be enough to offset the film’s flaws, but for all its shortcomings, there’s something about “Elvis” that keeps you wanting to come back for more — not unlike the star himself. 

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Summary

Despite some contentious decisions, a fantastic performance from Butler and a captivating story make "Elvis" a worthwhile watch.

3.5 stars
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