Baz Luhrmann’s musical drama “Elvis” has all the pomp and pompadour one would expect by putting Elvis Presley’s iconic life on screen. If only the storytelling was as dazzling as his bejeweled jumpsuits.
The relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler) and his notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), is at the center of an overlong, narrative mess (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu, Google Play and other on-demand platforms), as excessive as one of the King's fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
However, with Butler’s stellar portrayal, it’s never dull, and more enjoyable than not. The musical numbers are often dazzling, boosted by Luhrmann’s inimitable style. And the plot (for better and for worse) covers a ton of Presley’s life. But even when it’s over, you’re still not sure what Hanks is doing.
America’s Dad plays the literal heavy in “Elvis,” which at first is told from Parker’s perspective (although it doesn’t stay that way). A manipulative carny at his core, the Colonel watches young Elvis perform, and sees potential for the greatest show on Earth. And he’s not wrong: The Mississippi-born Memphis kid with rockabilly hair and a gawky frame goes on stage, does a “wiggle” with his hips, and female fans go absolutely bonkers. Not so shockingly, "Elvis the Pelvis" doesn’t play well in the conservative Bible Belt of the South.
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The film quickly rolls through his early days as a rising star in the 1950s, as Parker convinces Elvis to take him on as manager, and the singer causes enough of a ruckus that getting drafted into the Army is a decent PR move. Stationed in Germany, he meets future wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), whom Elvis begins to trust more than the sly, shady Colonel.
After the movie’s fever-dreamy first half, Luhrmann puts on the brakes from that breakneck pace as he reaches the late 1960s. After Elvis’ foray into Hollywood, he and Parker land in Las Vegas, where Presley has a musical comeback, but goes down a bad path as the Colonel pulls strings behind the scenes like a devilish puppet master. (When Elvis sings “Suspicious Minds,” the timing is right on the nose.)
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Butler makes for a phenomenal King of rock ’n’ roll because, rather than going the impersonator route, he grows into being Elvis just as the real one did, from truck driver to musical deity. And while Presley's own vocals were used in the latter part of the movie, Butler sings the early songs and brings real electricity to a performer who's just beginning to leave the world all shook up.
Hanks’ Parker is a harder sell. The makeup and prosthetics work is amazing, but the character never quite lands, as Hanks’ accent bounces from German to Leprechaun to “evil Woody after a hard life in the toy box.” (In reality, the Colonel was Dutch.) Also hampering his role: The movie centers on Parker for a good bit – with hints of unreliable narration and scenes where he takes control of the plot in meta fashion – but never fully commits to his point of view, adding to the film’s haphazard nature.
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While the kitchen-sink approach to Presley’s life doesn’t totally work, the film does have fits of strength. DeJonge is spot-on as Priscilla, although Elvis’ marriage is treated mainly as a subplot. The movie also interestingly dips into his respect for (and relationship with) the influential Black musicians of Beale Street, such as B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
Luhrmann’s gift for presenting musical fantasias, proven in his glorious “Moulin Rouge,” is on display here, not only with the well-crafted Butler scenes, but with a stirring performance of “Hound Dog” by Shonka Dukureh (as Big Mama Thornton), a soulful “That’s All Right” courtesy of Gary Clark Jr. (channeling Arthur Crudup), and a show-stopping “Tutti Frutti” from Alton Mason (who plays Little Richard).
You can’t help falling in love with the music, Butler's transformation into a legend and Luhrmann’s signature flourishes: Comic-book panels reflect Presley’s love of superheroes, and there's a groovy ‘60s-style movie montage. However, at the risk of checking into Heartbreak Hotel, don’t get your hopes up for a cohesive classic befitting a King.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Elvis' movie review: Austin Butler rules as King over musical mess