Elvis: Luhrmann’s Razzle Dazzle Biopic, Dominated by Star Turn from Rising Actor Austin Butler

Elvis is director Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle biopic, with Tom Hanks as an oily Colonel Tom Parker and electrifying Austin Butler as The King.


“Elvis” star Austin Butler plays the singer in every stage of his career, starting with the hip-swiveling rocker who made the girls swoon. Warner Bros.

Baz Luhrmann’s biopic Elvis is defined by expectedly excessive, razzle-dazzle production, a star turn performance from rising actor Austin Butler as the title character, and a polarizing take on Colonel Tom Parker by nearly unrecognizable Tom Hanks.

As he showed in Moulin Rouge, arguably his best film to date, Elvis is candy-colored, highly stylized, fever-dream showmanship

The film unfolds as a Greatest Hits compilation touching on the many faces (and phases) of the short but rich life of Elvis, from country bumpkin to sex symbol icon to B-movie star to seemingly irrelevant near has-been to the Comeback King to Las Vegas icon to his untimely death at the age of 42.

The movie’s major shortcoming is its flawed scenario, co-written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner.  And as was the case with his previous films, Luhrmann is more adept as a flamboyant director than a reliable storyteller.

What we get with this Elvis is a sprawling rollercoaster ride, which is more concerned with the mythology rather than reality of the legendary singer. Luhrmann bombards our senses with a nonstop medley of arresting sights and sounds.

One sided and distorted, Elvis is told through the skewed and distorted huckster’s perspective of Colonel Tom Parker.  As is well known, Parker was not a colonel–he was born Andreas Cornelis van Kujik in the Netherlands, which might explain Hanks’ struggling with a consistent accent.

He was an admittedly great showman and promoter who latched onto Presley early on and rode his show pony into the ground, allegedly bilking Presley of millions and maneuvering him into making deals that benefitted him personally much more than the singer he was supposed to represent and protect.


Tom Hanks, unrecognizable as Elvis’ wheeler-dealer manager, Colonel Tom Parker.Warner Bros.

Luhrmann uses a sparkling array of visual and aural tactics, from period-piece graphics to sepia-toned flashbacks, from nostalgic color schemes to swooping camera movements to split screens and cool and creative match-cut transitions.

Unlike singers of his and later era, Elvis didn’t write his own material.  Rather, he appropriated the sounds of gospel and blues from Black artists, a fact that was not controversial at the time, but became so later on.

Elvis only partially acknowledges that, with the short and shallow vignettes with the likes of BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason), Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey).

The film’s fate rests on Austin Butler, who shows movie-star potential in his most challenging role to date; he had previously played the evil fool Tex Watson in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Butler doesn’t do an Elvis impersonation, but he does a good job of capturing the hip-swiveling Elvis who makes girls swoon and scream.

The film covers the screen career of Elvis in the 1950s and 1969s, who, with few exceptions, appeared in largely forgettable  movies (though, regardless, many of which were commercial hits due to his singing).

We observe the brilliant performer who made a most memorable pop-star comeback in a 1968 TV special, and the lost and self-parodying Karate King who sweated and toiled on the Vegas stage and only occasionally touched greatness.

Butler is an electric performer who shines in the spotlight when Elvis is onstage, but he also infuses character with empathetic humanity and vulnerability.

Is Hanks miscast? Misdirected? Hanks’ characterization of Colonel Tom Parker is a big swing for someone who has been, America’s Most Likable Movie Star for more than 30 years.

Despite Parker’s protestations, he is the villain of the story. Parker constantly reminds us that he “made” Elvis Presley, but the fact that he also responsible to the decline and destruction of his creation cannot be ignored or easily disregarded.

What viewers are likely to remember at the end a distorted but nonetheless enjoyable and electrified biopic treatment in an ultra-kinetic vision of his life and career through the eyes of the financial abuser who controlled him.

Despite its tragic elements–the heartbreaking ending and untimely death–as directed by Luhrmann, Elvis the movie comes across as a jovial celebration of a singer-artist, who dominated the charts for two decades and then left a long-lasting impact on musical and pop culture, in and outside of the U.S.