ELVIS review by Mark Walters – Austin Butler is The King for Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

ELVIS review by Mark Walters – Austin Butler is The King for Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

When it comes to larger than life personalities in the world of music, there is arguably no one bigger or more influential than Elvis Presley. Visionary filmmaker Baz Luhrmann has put together a new biopic about The King of Rock and Roll, and it’s likely to be a smash hit and solid Oscar contender. But can any cinematic production properly convey the true grandeur of this monumental man? Worthy of note, this is the movie Tom Hanks was filming in Australia when he became the first big name celebrity to contract Covid, so it’s worth keeping in mind as I’m sure the logistics of shooting something like this during these difficult times was quite challenging. It also makes the end result all the more impressive.

A large portion of the movie ELVIS is narrated by Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks), who explains to the audience how he was a simple promoter working the carnival circuit who moonlights with booking country music performer Hank Snow (David Wenham) and his son Jimmie (Kodi Smit-McPhee). One night he’s surprised to see a new performer take the stage as a side act, a young man named Elvis Presley (Butler) who is dressed flamboyantly, speaks with a drawl, and seems to be almost possessed by the music. When Elvis begins to sing and dance, the women in the audience seem to lose control, and it’s clear this young man has something special to offer. Parker pushes Elvis to become his exclusive manager, and so begins a complex relationship between the two men. As Elvis grows in popularity, his mother begins to worry that he’s losing his Christian spirit. There’s also the issue of Elvis being a little too controversial in his singing and dancing style, which catches heat from Conservative voices. At one point Parker suggests he join the Army to clean up his image, and there he meets Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), a young woman who will become his wife. As Elvis returns to his celebrated performances, his fame continues to explode, but the stress and his growing substance abuse starts to take a serious toll.

ELVIS isn’t quite the traditional biopic, but more of a musical series of events that help us understand the man and his challenges. Hardcore fans will likely appreciate the love and care taken in depicting key moments of his life, but might also wonder why certain events are either glossed over or simply ignored. It’s quite entertaining seeing young Elvis become famous and adored by the public, even if there’s a lingering doom just beneath the surface. No matter how exciting the events he’s involved with get, there’s always that fear that the other shoe is going to drop. I appreciated the movie showing just how connected and influenced Elvis was by music from Black singers and musicians, and him having close relationships with performers like B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.). While some filmmakers might be content to show Elvis as a boy sneaking into a Black church and letting the spirit move him, Baz Luhrmann makes sure to show again and again how much this side of things meant to him, and how he took comfort in his associations with Black musicians, even during a time when they were not as respected as they should have been. Some might notice how other key aspects of Elvis’ life aren’t covered as strongly. For example, his controversial age difference with Priscilla (she was 14 and he was 24 when they fell in love) isn’t even mentioned, despite showing an intimate kiss scene between the two of them. Those who don’t know the truth behind that romance would likely view that scene as just a simple and sweet moment of love, but it really should have been addressed a bit for the sake of accuracy. There’s also things like Elvis and his movie career, which is a big part of his life and legacy, but is barely mentioned in the film.

There are moments in the production that are handled exceptionally well, such as the recreation of the 1968 Comeback Special, in which Elvis showed the world in a big way that he’s still got it, or some of the ‘live” performances of Elvis in the Hotel Intercontinental in the 1970s toward the end of his life. The painstaking detail used in these sequences is incredible, and really helps transport the audience into the past and gives them a glimpse of what it must have been like watching him perform. Austin Butler’s performance is transformative, and he really encapsulates the essence and personality of Elvis here. Butler has spoken in interviews about how he studied footage and listened to every interview Elvis ever did, mastered the voice and in particular how it changed over the years. Oddly enough, the actor doesn’t really look that much like Elvis, but his portrayal is so dedicated and sincere that from time to time you’ll SEE Elvis in him. It’s such a good performance that you quickly forget how little he actually favors The King. Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker takes a bit of getting used to. Buried in prosthetics and a fat suit, he plays Parker as a high-pitched fast talker who has all the answers. There’s a line early on in which he says through narration “There are some who might call me the villain of this here story…” and it’s obvious that’s how the film wants him to be perceived. The real Colonel Parker was supposedly more soft spoken and even (according to the real Priscilla Presley) a bit nurturing, not a hand-wringing bad guy. But every good story needs a protagonist and antagonist, so Hanks seems fine showing us the uglier side of the shameless promoter.

At two hours and 39 minutes, ELVIS is a lot to take in, and for the most part it’s all very entertaining. I would have liked to see more interactions with Elvis’ “crew” who were by his side through most of his days, like Sonny West for example, who is barely mentioned by name in the film. But I suppose the story here really is Elvis and The Colonel, and Priscilla of course, or at least that’s what Baz wants to focus on most. One of the more annoying aspects of the production is the inclusion of rap songs, or at times Elvis songs sort of morphing into rap music for the soundtrack… yeah, I’m not kidding. But thankfully most of the songs we know and love are handled well, and it does give the film more of a musical feel, which is something Luhrmann has proven himself quite capable of. I really enjoyed ELVIS, even if it handles certain things in a questionable way, and I imagine it will enlighten and introduce a lot of younger viewers to the brilliance of his legacy. I predict this movie will be for moviegoers something akin to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and reinvigorate the music and media of Elvis Presley. And while some are saying Tom Hanks is a shoe in for an Oscar, I’d bet money it’s Butler who wows The Academy, as convincingly becoming The King of Rock and Roll is no easy feat. It’s a brilliant and complex performance in a very ambitious film, and there’s no doubt in my mind that (like a young Elvis) Austin Butler is about to become very famous.

ELVIS opens June 24, 2022

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.