3 December 2022

Complex, ambitious, exploited, and ultimately tragic

Austin Butler in Elvis (2022). Picture: Warner Bros.

By Wendy Knowlton 

5 August 2022

Before setting foot in a cinema many were prepared to dismiss Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis as an exercise in style over substance. The bedazzled opening credits and frenetic editing of the first ten minutes might support this judgement. But, in classic Luhrmann style, things calm down as the story progresses. In the end, Elvis offers much more than its critics were willing to admit. 

This is largely due to the mesmerizing performance of Austin Butler. He somehow avoids comparison with decades of Elvis impersonators and creates a totally committed portrait of a complex, ambitious, exploited and ultimately tragic individual. Drawing inspiration from Revival ecstasy and black culture Elvis is swiftly labelled a threat to conservative white values. But efforts to control him with threats of jail and a stint in the army can’t contain a man who Luhrmann presents as being driven by a fierce desire to be true to himself. Elvis sings and moves the way he does not to inflame his hyperventiling female fans, but because he must. The youthful exuberance and the tightrope act required to balance fear and triumph, doubt and belief makes for a fascinating opening. 

Far less successful is Tom Hanks as Elvis’s long-time manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The fact that he feels so unconvincing, swamped by prosthetics and burdened with a strange accent, could be deemed a cunning choice rather than an unfortunate failure. Parker was indeed a construct, an identity invented by an AWOL Dutchman: a carnival grotesque eager to find and exploit the next rising star to line his own pockets and support his gambling habit. Despite his self-serving narrative and proclamations of love for “his boy” the parasitic Parker’s actions are enough to establish him as a villain. A more subtle portrayal may have made him a more interesting one. 

Elvis wants to tour the world and at one point, the possibility of a legitimate acting career beckons with a role in A Star is Born on offer. Instead, he is forced into a series of trite film roles and trapped in the glitzy world of Las Vegas with Parker pulling the strings, feathering his own nest whilst bankrupting his oblivious charge.  In the last years of his life, Elvis is propped up by meaningless affairs, drugs and drink, his health and mental well-being sacrificed so the show can go on. The still loving Priscilla (Olivia de Jonge) can’t stay, and the ageing star is increasing entombed in shadowy hotel suites, cut off from the wider world by the fall of each curtain. 

Luhrmann’s protagonist worries that he will be forgotten, that he has left no mark on the world when he had such dreams. Elvis is a cautionary tale about the often-hollow nature of fame and the dangers of misplaced loyalty and trust. Handsomely shot, embellished by Catherine Martin’s stunning costumes and largely strong performances it is a film that will still divide audiences, but proves many critics wrong. 

In cinemas now. 

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