“Skinny, greasy hair, makeup, pink suit, girly…strange he was….”
This is the first comment Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) makes when he sees a young Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) on stage. Nervous, Elvis looks into the crowd and hesitates. The crowd doesn’t know what to make of this pretty boy with eyeshadow and long curly hair. “Get a haircut, fairy!” someone in the crowd shouts. Almost in response, Elvis starts belting his first hit single, “Baby, I Want to Play House With You.” Possessed by his music, he starts dancing in front of a crowd of girls, who start screaming and reaching for him. “They want to see you wiggle,” his band declares. We immediately see the crowd almost rabid as we get quick cuts between Elvis’s wiggling and fans overcome by lust and desire as they rip his pink suit jacket off.
This is our introduction to Elvis Presley.
Butler Gives a Powerhouse Performance
One of the main cruxes of the biopic genre seems to be that the actors do not put on convincing performances. They always feel like cartoonish reenactments going through a celebrity’s Wikipedia entry. This was not the case with Austin Butler, who put on a star-making performance as the King himself, Elvis. From the dyed black hair to the colorful, eye-catching suits to the wiggling and hip-shaking moves, everything was exact. Several times I had to blink in the theater and remind myself, “I am watching an actor.” All the props in the world go to the hair and makeup artists and costume designers for making Butler look the part.
However, Butler came onto the stage with all of the presence, sex appeal, and charisma of the actual Elvis. As he fell to his knees and started thrusting his hips and singing mere inches in front of an audience in one concert sequence, it clicked. I get why he is so beloved. He is magnetic. He is alluring. He is a rock star and a sex symbol. Irresistible. It is literally a plot point in this movie that he dances provocatively and that the government wants to put him in jail. It’s quite a feat that Butler can match his charm and sexuality so believably.
There is a fine line between imitation and evocation
The performance seems to be especially impressive when you consider the fact that Elvis is a highly impersonated figure. It is an actual job. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to nail the singing, looks, and accent without appearing like a knock-off straight from the Las Vegas strip. But Butler did it. The concert sequences especially were some of the most immersive and impressive scenes I have seen in a musical film in quite a long time. Baz Luhrmann and Butler genuinely recreated as much of the concert experience as they could. I sat there singing along and even felt compelled to clap at the end of certain scenes. By the looks of his performance, he really did live, sleep, and breathe Elvis.
Baz Luhrmann’s bold style enhances a boring genre
I know that the main complaint about this movie seems to be Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant and frenetic style. For a figure that truly embodies the style, flair, and opulence of Hollywood, Luhrmann’s style most certainly works. The story, on its own, covers just the basics of Elvis’s life. Luhrmann’s bold direction and Butler’s awe-inspiring performance elevate this movie to a whole other level. The editing is every bit as chaotic and flashy as Elvis’s own life. This keeps up the energy as we move across time, seeing Elvis’s origins and how he grows as a performer as he moves from concert to concert. Some might find it to be too quick, but I found it to be electrifying. Baz Luhrmann presents Elvis the Performer as an exciting, unrelenting circus attraction, and the editing sure does match that energy.
Why does directing keep us at a distance?
Baz Luhrmann presents Elvis as this grand, larger-than-life figure. This story is told from the perspective of and partially narrated by Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager. This keeps the audience at arm’s length as Parker deifies what he calls “his greatest Carnival attraction.” This is how most of us fans saw Elvis. By doing this, he keeps us at arm’s length during the whole film, showing us how and why Elvis was so adored from the fans’ perspective.
This idea is reinforced as we see slow-motion shots of throngs of women screaming and reaching out, tearing at his clothes, or throwing their underwear on stage. Or another where Butler is lying, arms stretched out as fans hold him up in a fully packed concert. These scenes have all the energy and passion of a real concert, which is all the better to be experienced in a theater.
Understanding the myth and legend that is Elvis
The main point of this film, I don’t believe, is to try to retell the story of Elvis Presley. We already know that story, and it has been told a million times already. I believe Baz Luhrmann made this film to capture the spectacle of Elvis and why he was so beloved. Especially for people around my age, many do not know or care about him. I remember my grandmother would always tell me stories about how incredible Elvis was and listen to his CDs nonstop. I would roll my eyes and just say, “sure.” It’s one thing to be told someone is an icon, and it’s totally different to understand.
This biopic finally gave me an appreciation for Elvis as a performer and his music, which I never really understood before.