Perhaps it’s by design that the Elvis Presley of the new biopic Elvis is rendered so unknowable. There’s lots of him in Baz Luhrmann’s film, swaggering and crooning and sweating. But little of his inner life, the fire uniquely his, is communicated to the audience. It’s a film about a legend that keeps him just that: an idea, thrashing away at a distance.
That’s no fault of Austin Butler, the young actor handed a nearly impossible task. He has to embody one of the most impersonated people in modern history in, somehow, a new or revealing way—to move past caricature and toward something like personhood. Butler succeeds as well as Luhrmann will let him.
With his pouting lips and dizzying cheekbones, Butler ably embodies early Elvis’s almost androgynous—and yet still aggressively virile—magnetism. He does some of his own singing, and while he doesn’t quite nail the power and richness of the real thing, it’s a good enough approximation. Much later in this turgid 160 minute film, Butler gives good deterioration, all the pill haze and frustrated rage that defined so much of the singer’s final years. It may well be a star-making turn for the actor, a bold announcement of thespian vigor and ingenuity that even devoted fans of The Carrie Diaries didn’t know he had.
A shame, then, that Luhrmann works so hard to drown him out. Toweringly noisy and ceaselessly moving, Elvis finds Luhrmann working in overdrive to recapture the old flare that gave such florid life to films like Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. But those films—and even Australia and The Great Gatsby—have a sense of order to their physics. Their cameras seem to move in intentional rhythm, soaring and swirling on rails only visible to their creator. But Elvis yanks and jerks and rattles all over the place, looking for shape and purpose in every direction and finding little of it.