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Review: Austin Butler will make you believe he’s ‘Elvis’ in Baz Luhrmann’s exhilarating new movie

Austin Butler plays the title role in “Elvis,” which covers the range of the singer’s career. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

“Elvis” contains some of the most inspired filmmaking you will see in 2022. The film is vigorously directed by Baz Luhrmann, with more than just enthusiasm behind his energy. This isn’t flash for the sake of flash, but intelligent filmmaking that builds a mood and sustains it for more than 2½ hours.

Luhrmann’s approach is so original that it’s hard to describe, just as it’s hard to imagine how Luhrmann could have imagined the movie in his head as he was making it. In a typical instance, he might show Elvis Presley singing in a studio and then flash back to Elvis, as a child, peeking through the window of a sleazy nightclub and, later, visiting a Black church. All this will take maybe 25 seconds, with the camera moving all the while.

Luhrmann creates something here that feels like a dream. The movie is never quite surreal — it never departs completely from reality — but there is a quality of unreality about “Elvis” throughout, as though we are watching an American nightmare. And since every good nightmare deserves a monster, we get one in the form of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s longtime manager, played by Tom Hanks in jowly prosthetics and a fat suit.

If you saw the trailer for “Elvis,” you might have wondered whether the spectacle of Hanks as a Sydney Greenstreet-like fat man would render the movie absurd. That’s not the case here. In fact, it’s essential to the success of the movie that we are always aware that this is a slim actor, one of the most recognizable people in the world, decked out in a very expensive Halloween costume. The makeup job is believable, and yet its all-important suggestion of the ridiculous allows the movie to keep one toe outside realism.

Austin Butler prepped for ‘Elvis’ by meeting Priscilla Presley: ‘She has the most mesmerizing eyes’

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manipulative manager, in the new film “Elvis.” Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Hanks’ performance keeps a toe outside realism, as well. He presents Parker as an all-knowing trickster, someone with an almost supernatural grip on his lone, happy client of him. Parker narrates the story, and he’s so vain that he thinks the movie is about him. But it’s not. It’s about Elvis, with a very capable Austin Butler incarnating Elvis in all his stages of him.

The real Elvis Presley was an enormously charming man, with a disarming and complicit smile. Nobody could replicate that, but it’s striking just how close Butler comes. When he walks onstage for the 1973 Hawaii concert, it’s as if he’s inhabiting Elvis’ body. There’s a magical moment near the end of the film, where the movie switches from footage of Butler to footage of Elvis, so seamlessly that you don’t immediately notice.

Physical stuff aside, Butler is also good at showing aspects of Elvis that we never saw, and at making us believe them. His vulnerability to him before Parker — who is much smarter, meaner and more convoluted than poor Elvis — is painful throughout. So is the breakup scene between Elvis and his wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).

Not everything is perfect, though it’s astonishing how much it is, when you consider the chances that Luhrmann takes throughout the movie. The script descends into silliness during a sequence in which Elvis films his special comeback in 1968. But then it recovers. Along the way, “Elvis” never flags in energy, despite its length, nor does it ever feel rushed. From start to finish, it is a commanding demonstration of directorial virtuosity.

Austin Butler comes close to replicating the charm of Elvis Presley in “Elvis.” Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s so fresh and energetic that you might only later realize the extent to which it’s a posthumous takedown of Parker. He emerges as a blight on Presley’s life from him, a parasite who distorted a great American talent by putting him in garbage movies and steering him in every wrong direction. When I was a kid, Elvis seemed like an old man, because everything he did was corny — his song choices, his venues, his jumpsuits. Elvis’s saving grace was that he was in on the joke, but the joke was himand it didn’t have to be.

Then, eventually, the parasite killed the host. It’s extraordinary how Luhrmann is able to tell this story honestly, while still making it palatable. It’s equally extraordinary that he can take this short and tragically misdirected life and make it feel like a triumph.

N“Elvis”: Drama. Starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. (PG-13. 159 minutes.) In theaters starting Friday, June 24.



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