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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

“Elvis” – movie portrayal of the ‘King’ falls short, but Austin Butler’s Elvis deserves praise

A scene fron "Elvis"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

In Baz Luhrmann’s movies, everything happens everywhere all at once. Think of “Moulin Rouge” or his take on “The Great Gatsby.”

For some, his work is deliriously fizzy and full of itself. For others (say, me), it’s flamboyant overkill, as frenetic as it is empty-headed.

And now we have “Elvis,” a biography of Elvis Presley that will strike Luhrmann fans as exactly what they long for, and Elvis fans as a near-blasphemous desecration of everything that made the King, well, the King.

Now, I’m a Beatles baby, through and through. Even so, it’s impossible not to recognize the mind-blowing talent and unique charisma that defined Elvis. Alas, Luhrmann’s biofilm is more like an Elvis impersonator – bloated and bejeweled, barely skimming the surface of one of the most original entertainers who ever lived.

A scene fron “Elvis”

The picture is told from the viewpoint of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by a prosthetically-overburdened Tom Hanks. Parker, who turns out to be a mysterious European with a carney background, is the Devil in this Passion of the Elvis, a greedy bloodsucker who used the singer until, ultimately, he used him all up. As most of us know Elvis died age 42 of an apparent overdose.

But this “Elvis,” as far as I can tell, isn’t interested in anyone who knows much of anything about the King. It’s as if it were made for people who couldn’t tell you where they were when they heard Elvis had died. 

Because most of them weren’t born when Elvis died on August 16, 1977.

Chronologically, the film is fairly straightforward, beginning with Elvis’s childhood in the Jim Crow South where tent-meeting revivals, honky-tonk juke joints and pervasive racism co-exist.

Movie poster of “Elvis”

Skip ahead a few years and enter adult Elvis (Austin Butler), stage center, doing that thing he did – the voice, those hips, the jet-black hair, the white-boy overlay of so-called race music. Most of all, the sexuality; our satanic Colonel Parker takes one look at the panting teenage girls in the audience, and he sees the future – his, as much as Elvis’s. Here is something – someone – he can sell and sell and sell.

And he does. We watch Elvis ascend to the top of the charts (and, seemingly, the world). He becomes a lightning rod for racial angst. He’s drafted and meets his future wife, Priscilla (Olivia Dejonge). That she’s only 14 is conveniently overlooked. 

Released from the Army, Elvis Goes Hollywood, seemingly making the same movie over and over (you tell me the difference between “Clambake’ and “Tickle Me”). The Beatles happen. Elvis needs a comeback and gets one with a 1968 concert that’s supposed to be a kitschy Christmas special but instead hints at the power that Elvis still miraculously retained despite mismanagement on every level (from the Colonel’s gambling problems to the star’s own drug addictions).

A scene from “Elvis”

Eventually, we end up at the International Hotel in Vegas, with Elvis tied to a five-year contract, entertaining the faithful, making his entrance to “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” and occasionally reaching his former magnificence with a soul-wrenching gospel song. The film’s final sequence is an astonishing injection of reality – a documentary clip of Elvis himself, a magnificent wreck, but still giving the fans his all.

Butler, who was recommended to Luhrmann by no less than Denzel Washington, deserves the praise he’s been getting. He doesn’t really look like Elvis; he’s more John Travolta in “Grease.” And he doesn’t do his own singing; his vocals are mixed with Elvis’s originals. But, more than his director, he gets something of the wild magic that made Elvis a legend. 

Still, he can’t get inside Elvis, and he gets no help from Luhrmann or the script. In this movie, Elvis hasn’t left the building.  That’s because he never really entered to begin with.

“Elvis” is still in movie theaters, and it also is available through video on demand.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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5 Comments

  1. Jim Burrows August 15, 2022 11:17 am

    The fact that the reviewer is a Beates fan, through and through, is not an excuse for not knowing that Elvis fans , since the get go, were, are, and will forever be totally in disagreement with her assertion that they will judge the movie “as a near-blasphemous desecration of everything that made the King, well, the King”#. Lets be OBJECTIVE, From the get go, it was 94% at Rotten Tomatoes, (not that website’s fresh review’ percentage, that was 78%), but that of the publiic. Ninety four. Moreover, any movie that makes US$262 million globally in less than 48 days can not be one that reaches those heights, in this day and age, without a tremedously positive word of mouth. Furthermore, the reviewer can NOT change history. Austin Butler did all of the vocals of Presley’s live appearances from 1954 until he entered the US Army. The fact he looks more like John Travolta, or as some have said, like Johnny Depp, is precisely because those two actors wanted to lookm like Elvis Presley, and they did, in Grease and Cry Baby.Report

    Reply
  2. Teka August 18, 2022 10:24 am

    I have to say, to start with – Your review!!! Beatles???? To even put them in the same category of talent is sanctimonious. I was there for the Beatles also. I liked the Beatles, but they just sang and pretty much never changed the level of their voices. Nothing changed and their talent did not grow. They just had good songs. Elvis was beyond more than talented with a voice no one could touch. It grew from his youth to a mature voice that out sang anyone. Any actor who portrays him will be taking on an the most iconic entertainer ever. There is no comparison to the vocal quality and talent. With all of that being said, because I just had to…..
    The Elvis movie is spectacular. While Kirk Russell and Dale Metcalf were fantastic in their movies, the work on this movie was nothing short of brilliant. The work that was put into the role was amazing. It was wonderful to hear Elvis singing almost all of the songs. However, the songs that were not lip synced were done very well. You could do a line up of every person who wanted to look like Elvis. Johnny Depp and John Travoltra being among them. Austin Butler did a fantastic job, as did every actor/actress in the movie. It was also brilliant to place actual shots of Elvis throughout. This Elvis fan found nothing about the movie to be blasphemous. I have found it to bring back a time when there was actually talent that could exhume all expectations. No one will EVER portray Elvis perfectly, but Austin Butler will stand with the best as well as the movie. Fantastic movie deserving of every moment of my time. Baz did an absolutely awesome job of creating the story of a man who was loved and a manager who was greedy. I was happy and sad all at the same time. Cudo’s to everyone involved. Fantastic.Report

    Reply
  3. Bruce Sharkey August 30, 2022 5:54 pm

    Eleanor Ringel obviously is not very good as a film critic.
    Just look at the other ratings and rotten tomatoes. The viewers LOVE this film and Austin Butler’s performance. He should be nominated for an academy award along with the movie.
    Eleanor its the viewers that pay the way…NOT YOUReport

    Reply
    1. Gin September 1, 2022 2:16 pm

      Absolutely AMEN!!!Report

      Reply
  4. sheldon September 4, 2022 2:40 am

    Like most Elvis fans, I loved the film. The emotional effect was enormous, the sign of good art.
    The Beatles were very much influenced by Elvis. I’ve seen their songlist from when they started out, many of their songs were Elvis covers. Like me, they first heard rock’n’roll on Radio Luxemburg, the BBC didn’t transmit rock music at the time.
    Elvis instead, born in Mississippi not Liverpool, absobed gospel, country, blues from the age of 2, and fused them to create his unique voice and style.
    The Beatles wrote great songs but owe much of their success to the genius of producer and arranger George Martin, a very accomplished musician.

    https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/10-great-beatles-moments-we-owe-to-george-martin-14719/

    Elvis had only his own talent and Col. Parker, who didn’t know one note from the other and was only interested in the $$$$!Report

    Reply

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