Tackling the role of Elvis Presley is a daunting challenge. There are millions of adoring, protective fans who will watch and critique every move and curled lip. Numerous actors have tried playing the King in big and small-screen productions: Don Johnson in "Elvis and the Beauty Queen" from 1981, Michael Shannon in 2016's "Elvis and Nixon," and David Keith in the 1988 effort, "Heartbreak Hotel," just to name a few. Probably the most acclaimed performance (and deservedly so) was delivered by Kurt Russell in "Elvis," the 1979 TV movie directed by John Carpenter.
Now, a 30-year-old actor named Austin Butler – probably best known for his role as Charles Manson follower Tex Watson in "Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood" – has given us his take on the famed performer in the new theatrical film "Elvis," and he has simply hit the ball out of the park. The movie is elevated even higher by Oscar-winning co-star Tom Hanks and the stunning visual style of acclaimed writer/director Baz Luhrmann ("Romeo + Juliet, "The Great Gatsby").
The film begins with a big visual splash – Presley's famous "TCB" ("Taking Care of Business") logo, which blends into the Warner Bros. shield. We then encounter the singer's aging former manager, Col. Tom Parker (a very heavily made-up Tom Hanks), now near-death and eager to set the record straight on whether he was a manipulative charlatan or someone who had the singer's best interests at heart. By the way, Hanks spent between two-and-a-half to five hours each day in the makeup chair to achieve the look of the heavyset promoter.
The script by Luhrmann, frequent collaborator Craig Pearce, Sam Bromell ("The Get Down") and Jeremy Doner ("The Killing") moves along at a face pace, featuring lots of narration from the colonel and a multitude of characters as the film attempts to touch on the more major events in the singer's life — all in two hours and 39 minutes.
We meet his parents, Vernon and Gladys, played by Richard Foxburgh and Helen Thompson. The two Australian actors replaced Rufus Sewell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who were forced to drop out after the production shut down for six months during the early days of COVID-19.
We learn about Elvis' childhood, his early musical influences that come courtesy of local Black performers, and we witness his first concert performance where the nervous singer unleashes his physical presence on an unsuspecting audience that's quickly seduced. (The reactions of some of the female concert-goers are priceless.)
The colonel is an equal character in this film, and Hanks demonstrates Parker's immense skills as a promoter to full-effect, especially in a scene at a country fair where he does a sort of dance with his potential new client– first in a disorienting hall-of-mirrors attraction, and then on a Ferris wheel. Luhrmann's vast visual skills are on full display through this movie, whether it's at a carnival, or while having a career-changing meeting at the Hollywood sign, or conducting an on-stage rehearsal for Presley's Las Vegas residency. It's all so very visual and something to behold.
The recreation footage of those famous shows at the International Hotel, as well as the acclaimed 1968 comeback TV special, are shot so spot-on that at times I was wondering if I was looking at newsreel footage of those actual shows and not new scenes for a movie.
Butler (who beat out the likes of Miles Teller and Harry Styles for the Elvis role) worked with a movement coach to duplicate Presley's on-stage mannerisms, kicks, karate chops and other moves. He captures the King's presence so perfectly, it's almost scary. He can be sexy and confident, but also vulnerable. Butler also does some of the actual singing of the early Elvis songs, with Presley's voice sometimes blended in. The later-era song are all actual Presley recordings.
WATCH: Actors talk about Elvis Presley
As mentioned, the story moves very quickly and at times almost seems frenetic. It's a challenge to depict such an amazing life and career in a little over two-and-a-half hours, so a lot of events are just touched on or passed over. Priscilla Presley (played well by Olivia DeJonge of "The Visit") does figure in the story, but just like many other parts of Elvis' life, that could have been its own movie.
This movie does deliver on many levels: It's wonderful depiction of Elvis Presley in different eras, as well as a look at the life and career challenges he was going through. It also provides a closer examination of the manager who manipulated the entertainer for more than two decades. Plus, "Elvis" presents some absolutely incredible concert scenes that make the audience feel like they have a front row seat to some legendary performances.
4½ out of 5 star
Now in theaters