Austin Butler electrifies audiences as the King of Rock n’ Roll in a Fever Dream Biopic
If Hollywood is to be believed, there is an endless hunger to transform our icons into mortals. Approaches include snapshots of pivotal moments in their history and the pressure and trials they endure in order to picture ourselves in such lions’s dens. Other more laborious efforts have tried to map out each of these pivotal moments across the entirety of the subject’s life, as if somewhere along the way we’ll pinpoint the exact moment they transcended their fellow everymen and joined the ranks of the gods we worship.
By reducing the lives of the famous into something consumable and understandable, biopics aspire to an act of cinematic transubstantiation; by reducing the culturally godly into something human and relatable, we can recognize and pursue the same path of fame and adoration—often to our downfall. It’s fitting, then, that amidst the glut of 21st-century biopics including Walk the Line, Ray, Rocketman, Respect, Love & Mercy, Jersey Boys, and many more, one of the only films I find to be the most enduring in this genre is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
By blending and blaming the entirety of American musical history on John C. Reilly’s Forrest Gump-ian yokel with dreams as endless as his myriad drug addictions, writer-director Jake Kasdan wears the fabrications of the entire genre as a badge of honor. In a roundabout way, the endless parody of Walk Hard gives way to a genuine sincerity that none of these more severely-intentioned films can get at, no matter how hard they try to persuade their audiences that their events actually happened. After Walk Hard, why bother pursuing any form of musical biopic at all?
And in come Baz Luhrmann and Elvis with the steel chair!
Beginning with Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet at a very young age, Luhrmann’s signature brand of bombastic, passionate pastiche has been lovingly seared on my synapses. Like no other auteur out there, Luhrmann is able to blend even the most diametrically opposed influences to fit whatever use he sees fit for them. From Strictly Ballroom to The Getdown, Lurhmann finds a universal, fiercely emotional truth at the core of each of his inspirations—and his unabashedly campy championing of those beliefs has won over audiences worldwide as much as it found him equally cynical detractors.
An Elvis biopic shouldn’t work today, let alone one that’s a multi-million-dollar, VFX-laden affair. But if there was a director who seemed perfectly suited to tackle a musical biopic with gonzo sincerity in this day and age, it’s the Bazman. And for all of its truly bizarre choices, from Tom Hanks’s accent to the way it barrels through Elvis’s history like a bullet equipped with Dolby Atmos, I can’t help falling in love with Elvis.
Framed as the morphine-infused dying memories of Elvis’s scheming manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, (Hanks) the film speeds us through Elvis’s (Austin Butler) meteoric rise and fall; along the way, the Colonel seeks to wash his hands of the belief that he had anything to do with the star’s death. The blisteringly fast-paced opening few minutes of Elvis, complete with an aged Hanks hobbling through a Vegas casino of the mind on an IV, immediately divorce us from any true sense of reality. Rather, Luhrmann shrewdly and stunningly leans full-tilt into the larger-than-life carnival ride we picture Elvis’s existence to have been. For all intents and purposes, it’s a stylistic get-out-of-jail-free card, lamp-shading any familiar territory audiences may travel through while giving Luhrmann a dreamy yet solid foundation to get at what he finds most interesting about Elvis’s life story.
Luhrmann’s fever dream of Americana asks one bizarrely simple question: What if all of the rote story beats of any musical biopic made in the last 20 years stepped into Dr. Brundle’s teleportation machine from The Fly, only to have a Marvel superhero film step in with them at the last second? Like a wonderful union of his previous Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann plays fast and loose with history, setting fire to anachronisms or verisimilitude in the process. Luhrmann highlights important moments in Elvis’s life, to be sure, but everything surrounding them—contemporary events like the Rolling Stones’s Altamont Speedway concert or the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, various backroom dealings with studio producers and casino owners, chance meetings with fellow celebrities—are fused together like a speeding kaleidoscope of inspiration.
As a result, while there is a beginning and end to Elvis’s story, Elvis himself is always perpetually human and hero. With exuberant dancing and energetic vocal wailing, Luhrmann frames Elvis’ abilities as nothing short of superheroic—and as deserving of box office billions as any member of the Avengers.
It’d be remiss at this point to not talk about how absolutely incredible Butler is in this role. Beginning as a wide-eyed kid and adapting to the weight of Elvis’s persona until the bitter end, Butler recognizes that the key to this performance isn’t in outright imitation, but in capturing the electrifying spirit of Elvis as a performer. Butler’s Elvis is endlessly curious, soaking up musical influences like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, or B.B. King like a sponge. The unshakable nerves he has before a performance are channeled into his wild gyrations onstage. And no matter how true-to-life Elvis’s clashes with the law and society may be, the tradition-bucking joyous fervor of how Butler belts out each song always remains front and center.
This self-deprecating yet unabashedly mythic approach to Elvis is what allows Luhrmann to run wild as a director, infusing what could have been another tired retread of musical history with much-needed vitality and gravitas. Where previous films allowed audiences to catch their breath between numbers, Luhrmann’s wall-to-wall utilization of Presley’s discography (with help from modern performers like Doja Cat, Diplo, Eminem, and Kasey Musgraves) transforms the film into a nonstop number that’s an endurance test for its lead as much as it is for the audience. The set pieces and showcases never stop—and eventually, that becomes the point of Elvis.
Through the Colonel, Elvis is treated as a pop culture demigod who is endlessly crushed under his reputation as much as he is constantly forced to give it new life. Through the film, Luhrmann instills a cruelly transactional cost to our favorite Elvis numbers; each song comes at the cost of its creator, a pound of flesh for pop culture immortality.
It’s easy to write off Elvis as another example of Luhrmann’s style over substance, but the filmmaker has long since blended the two sides of this debate into a singular artistic substance by remixing the past in order to re-interpret and re-appreciate it. Through his kitchen sink approach towards both its style and its subject, Luhrmann’s Elvis stands with Walk Hard as a musical biopic whose ludicrousness is the point: It’s how we get to the core of what we love the most about who we love the most.
As with previous Luhrmann releases, the 4K UHD of Elvis showcases the director’s notoriously bombastic ambition in bringing his vision to life, with featurettes focusing on adapting Elvis’s life to screen in Bigger than Life: The Story of ELVIS; the film’s Australian-based production design and rigorously made costumes in Viva Australia and Fit for a King; the exhaustive list of modern-day musical collaborators in Rock n’ Roll Royalty; and, finally, a music video of Butler/Elvis’s “Trouble.”
Elvis is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of Warner Brothers.