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In Elvis, Baz Luhrmann ditches the caricature, magnifies the mythology and reintroduces an American hero.

The Snowman and the Showman

Elvis (Austin Butler)
Elvis (Austin Butler)

The life story of Elvis Aron Presley is perfect material for a big, splashy theatrical experience and Baz Luhrmann — the creative genius behind Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet — is the perfect visionary to present the story and the emotions with all the style they deserve.

Quite a few actors have previously portrayed Elvis, with Kurt Russell topping the list in the 1979 TV movie directed by John Carpenter. Don Johnson, Val Kilmer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jack White (a rock god in his own right) have also played the King, or an impersonator or an otherwise ambiguously Elvis-like character. But now there’s a new kid on the block, Austin Butler, and while he’s already been in show business for 15 years — including roles in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood and taking on Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (a role originally played by Sting) in the upcoming Dune: Part TwoElvis is finally going to make Butler a headliner.

By the time Elvis makes it to Vegas and starts his historic residency at the then brand-new International Hotel, it becomes mighty hard to tell the difference between Austin Butler as Elvis and historical footage from the era. That’s a testament to Butler and Luhrmann — and Tom Hanks, one of the few actors with the talent to bring to life Col. Tom Parker, a carny who destroys his own masterpiece, all while under a remarkable amount of prosthetic makeup and a fat suit.

Leave it to Luhrmann to frame Elvis’ life story largely through the dirty, scratched lens of the colonel, Presley’s scandal-ridden agent who had quite a shady past. Parker was a figment of his own imagination, a character who didn’t even exist until he feigned insanity to dodge the draft.

Luhrmann starts at the end, with the colonel proclaiming his innocence. Elvis’ death wasn’t his fault, he says, despite the morphine he had directed to be poured into Elvis’ veins so he could — at the colonel’s bidding — quickly pull himself together and make it through another Vegas show, albeit not with the same vigor of Elvis in his prime. Parker not only ate well, he gobbled up half of Elvis’ earnings in order to afford a lifestyle that was wastefully devoured in the casinos.

Here, Parker goes on to blame Elvis’ death on love — a smooth narrative move that fits so well in Luhrmann’s Bohemian world of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and — most powerful of all — Love.

Rock of Eternity

There’s a really great story to be told in following the creation of this enduring American legend from his shy, unpretentious roots to his outspoken, grandiose ending. Luhrmann captures it so well, particularly in the early days, before Elvis meets Col. Parker.

On one side, there’s a dusty bar with the blues reverberating through the floorboards, Sister Rosetta Tharpe providing the beats and vocals that lift people’s spirits. On the other side, there’s an old-fashioned revival tent with the power of gospel music healing the souls of those within. Between the two stands young Elvis (Chaydon Jay in a terrific debut). It’s a great movie moment to see him lifted up — literally and figuratively — by those two oddly complementary styles of music. In that humblest of settings, a wholly new kind of king is born, along with a new musical fusion that still moves people today.

As Elvis shakes his pelvis, endures censorship (a precursor to the cancel culture of modern social media) and shares the national trauma as MLK and RFK are assassinated by hateful men, as Charles Manson leads his cult and as the IRA causes pain abroad, his life turns into a canvas that becomes stunningly relatable in modern-day America, a reflection on how things have changed mightily but also how there’s still plenty of work to be done. Luhrmann’s Elvis serves not simply as a biography of the man, but also of his country.

Luhrmann is at his visually brilliant best in Elvis. While he tells the tale of this “white boy with Black hips,” roulette wheels spin, the giant Vegas marquees light up with condemnations outing Col. Parker’s evils and postcards stylistically set the time and place, alongside other colorful elements including old maps, grainy news footage and comic books. Back then, it was Captain Marvel Jr. that fueled Elvis’ imagination.

Voodoo Devil Music

Col. Parker (Tom Hanks) with Elvis (Austin Butler)
Col. Parker (Tom Hanks) with Elvis (Austin Butler)

The meeting — and wheeling and dealing — between Elvis and Col. Parker starts off on uneasy footing. What better way to present that relationship than at the top of a Ferris wheel at an old-school carnival? The cabin sways, forcing Elvis to regain his balance even as Col. Parker will ultimately — decades later — pull the entire floor right out from under him.

Thomas A. Parker has to be given credit for his uncanny ability to play all sides and every angle. For Elvis’ legion of fans, he pioneers merchandising, venturing into all sorts of board games, toys, tokens and memorabilia. But why not profit off the haters, too? As Hanks’ Col. Parker asks, “What is hate worth if it’s free?” For the naysayers, buy an “I hate Elvis” button and still help to advance the one and the same performer you despise.

Somewhere deep inside the hefty girth of Col. Tom Parker is a Blofeld-like Bond villain hellbent on world domination. Or, at least, a lavish lifestyle at Elvis’ expense.

In that setting, Col. Parker is a master puppeteer who sees the beauty in presenting people — particularly young ladies — with the opportunity to have feelings they aren’t sure they should feel. But Elvis also meets plenty of like-minded artists — including B.B. King and Little Richard — who help shape his outlook and inform his future influence.

At a time of social unrest and with racism spreading a fever, Elvis acknowledges, “This nation is hurting. It’s lost.” He goes on to make a statement through his music — to the consternation and aggravation of network executives and even Col. Parker himself, who relishes the thought of a Christmas special revolving around Santa Claus, not politics.

Elvis Ate America

Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and Elvis (Austin Butler)
Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and Elvis (Austin Butler)

Elvis lived for only 42 years. He died little more than 100 miles from where he was born. Elvis never got his dreamed-of world tour and the only time he left the continental U.S. was for his stint in Germany as part of his Army service. Even that was an action Col. Parker used as a marketing ploy to transform the public’s image of the skinny kid with greasy hair and girly makeup — accused of crimes of lust and perversion — into a clean-cut American hero.

And there was Hawaii, from where Elvis’ historic satellite broadcast reached — as later promoted — a staggering 1.5 billion people. Never mind the specter of a reality that says the total possible audience able to receive the broadcast was maybe closer to 1.3 billion.

“Who needs a world tour?” Col. Parker would say. With an audience like that, Col. Parker boasted he effectively brought the world to Elvis.

It’s all about the showmanship and the upsell. Col. Parker was a master of that fine art, as was Elvis and, of course, Luhrmann.

Painfully, at one point Butler’s Elvis says, “I’m all out of dreams.”

Elvis could’ve devolved into a kitschy display akin to today’s Vegas filled with cheap knick-knacks and Elvis impersonators. Instead, the now inevitable conclusion plays out with an empathy that pulls down the glitter and focuses on the man that moved musical mountains.

Luhrmann stays focused on what could so easily be lost amid the glamour of young Elvis and his shocking dance moves who transitions into Elvis the movie star before ending as the tragic figure eternally associated with Las Vegas lounge acts. Luhrmann reinvigorates the image of Elvis Presley the pioneer musician who brought a whole new sound to the world and then took that sound and used it as an instrument of social justice.

Ultimately, Elvis’ life isn’t just a great story, it’s a great American story.

“When things are too dangerous to say, sing.”
— Elvis Presley