In a deranged state from his many medical issues, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) recalls his relationship with Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), from humble beginnings on the carnival circuit, to super-stardom, his '68 Comeback Special, and on to his final days in Las Vegas...
Elvis Presley has been played by many different actors. It's a testament to his larger-than-life persona that you can have as varied actors like Michael Shannon, Val Kilmer, or Kurt Russell play Elvis and all of them are equally valid performances. No one yet has ever become the definitive one, but it's safe to say that Austin Butler's will be the most talked-about for quite some time.
To begin with, everything you either love or loathe about director Baz Luhrmann is on display in 'Elvis'. Restraint is for other people. Every bit of glamour and gaudiness is wedged in, and Luhrmann's fearlessness in slicing up Elvis Presley's 'Viva Las Vegas' with Britney Spears' 'Toxic' is commendable. Moreover, Luhrmann is decidedly uninterested in biography here. To him, this is hagiography - Elvis has been chosen by the hand of fate to drag the world kicking and screaming into a new age. Luhrmann's vision captures that excitement and the delirium in the first hour or so of the movie. Yet, from then on, 'Elvis' turns into the familiar tale of fame and fortune gone awry, culminating in the neon prison of Las Vegas.
When it comes to biopics, there are only ever two options - either take one aspect or event of a person's life and zero in, or capture it all. The former requires discipline from the scriptwriters, the latter requires consideration from the director. In 'Elvis', Luhrmann is more than equal to the task. At two hours and forty minutes, the juiciest moments are selected - you've got the wild early years, his spell in the US Army in Germany and his short-lived movie career, the '68 Comeback Special, his attempts to rid himself of Tom Parker, his fraught relationship with Priscilla Presley and his parents. 'Elvis' moves through them all, but never examines any of them to such a degree that it slows things down. The script and story keep rattling on until it all becomes a blur of lights and music, not unlike how it was for the titular character.
Austin Butler is in a star-making role here. You can see that there's real intensity in the early years, in one scene where he plays 'Trouble' almost like it's a punk song. Butler wears the later years like a heavy cloak, but still has the charisma and the will to perform beyond his own body's capabilities. That the movie culminates with real-life footage of his final performance, seated at a piano playing 'Unchained Melody', you feel the connective tissue. There's a desperation that's evident throughout the movie in Butler's performance that Luhrmann captures fully. It's for the best that a relative unknown was given this role, as anyone else would have invariably drawn comparisons. Harry Styles probably could have played this role, and done it well - but you would still see Harry Styles playing Elvis Presley. Here, Austin Butler is unencumbered and free to give himself to the audience entirely.
Tom Hanks, however, is where 'Elvis' stumbles. Sure, Hanks is under several layers of makeup and prosthetics, he's changed his accent entirely, and he's playing against type as an antagonist. The script makes no attempt to save Tom Parker's reputation, even though the movie opens with him begging the audience for forgiveness on what is ultimately his deathbed. Even with all this, with all of Luhrmann's propensity toward excess, Hanks seems to be trying his damnedest to out-act it all, the results swing wildly and brush up against farcical at times. Sure, Hanks is trying his damnedest to push past his everyman persona and play a total shitbag here, but it just comes up looking like buffoonery more than anything else. It could be that Hanks was trying to match Luhrmann's wavelength, going for broke and being fearless, but it feels like there was a better casting choice out there. So often is the case that Hanks lets the movie down, while Butler raises it back up.
For all of this, 'Elvis' still is a winner. It's a lot like his later works. It is flinging everything at you. It is earnest, far too earnest for its own good. It tries to do too much and takes too long to get there. But underneath all of the bells and whistles, all the flourishes and the indulgence, there is still a rawness and a vitality that cannot be denied.