Elvis biopic: Austin Butler praised, but mixed reviews for film

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Austin Butler in ElvisImage source, Warner Bros
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Actor Austin Butler was praised by most critics for his portrayal of Presley

A new biopic of Elvis Presley has attracted generally positive reviews, with many critics praising actor Austin Butler's portrayal of the singer.

The movie, which is directed by Baz Luhrmann, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday.

The Wrap said Butler "throws himself into the performance", and Total Film predicted an Oscar nomination.

But Vanity Fair said Butler is "the only thing that works" while IndieWire called the film "deliriously awful".

The Telegraph's Robbie Collin awarded the film four stars, writing: "Yes, it's a bright and splashy jukebox epic with an irresistible central performance from Austin Butler.

"But in that signature Luhrmann way, it veers in and out of fashion on a scene-by-scene basis: it's the most impeccably styled and blaringly gaudy thing you'll see all year, and all the more fun for it."

In another four-star review, Kevin Maher of the Times said Elvis is "easily Luhrmann's best movie since Romeo + Juliet".

"The power in the musical numbers is drawn from Butler's turn but also from Luhrmann, who edits with the kind of frenetic rhythms that are almost impossible to resist (feet will tap)," he said.

"They are the spine-tingling highlights that make the entire project a must-see movie."

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Cannes premiere L-R: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Baz Luhrmann, Priscilla Presley, Alton Mason and Natasha Bassett

Butler reportedly beat Harry Styles, Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller when he was cast as Presley in 2019.

The Independent's Clarisse Loughrey praised Butler's performance, writing that the actor "makes a compelling argument for the power of Elvis, at a time when the musician's arguably lost a little of his cultural cachet".

"Butler has the looks, the voice, the stance and the wiggle nailed down, but what's truly impressive is that indescribable, undistillable essence of Elvis-ness - magnetic and gentle and fierce, all at the same time," she said.

The star's portrayal was described as "wildly physical but never cartoonish or disrespectful" by Steve Pond in The Wrap.

But, he continued: "It's not really [Butler's] fault that he doesn't look like Elvis, that his singing voice can't really get close to Elvis and that the makeup, hair styling and wardrobe used to get him in the ballpark mostly makes him look like an Elvis impersonator."

Some reviews were far more critical.

IndieWire's David Ehrlich said: "If only this 159-minute eyesore... a sadistically monotonous super-montage in which a weird Flemish guy manipulates some naïve young greaser over and over and over again until they both get sad and die - were gracious enough to be as short in any other respect.

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Tom Hanks plays Presley's manager Colonel Tom Parker, who also narrates the film

"It's hard to find even ironic enjoyment in something this high on its own supply; something much less interested in how its namesake broke the rules than it is in how its director does, and something tirelessly incapable of finding any meaningful overlap between the two."

There was a lukewarm response from Variety's Owen Gleiberman, who said: "What Elvis never quite shows us, at least not until its superior second half, is what was going on inside Elvis Presley.

"For a while, the film plays like a graphic novel on amphetamines, skittering over the Elvis iconography but remaining playfully detached from his soul.

"Butler does a reasonably good impersonation of Elvis's sultry velvet drawl. Yet his resemblance to Elvis never quite hits you in the solar plexus."

He concluded: "Luhrmann has made a woefully imperfect but at times arresting drama that builds to something moving and true. By the end, the film's melody has been unchained."

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw agreed, describing Elvis as "another pointless explosion of super-spangly sparkles in celluloid form".

"It's not a movie so much as 159-minute trailer for a film called Elvis - a relentless, frantically flashy montage, epic and yet negligible at the same time, with no variation of pace."

Tom Hanks stars in the film as Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who also narrates the story.

Image source, Warner Bros
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Luhrmann's previous film credits include Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby and Strictly Ballroom

Hanks' portrayal is "arguably the least appealing performance of his career", according to the Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney.

"It's a big risk to tell your story through the prism of a morally repugnant egotist, a financial abuser who used his manipulative carnival-barker skills to control and exploit his vulnerable star attraction," he wrote.

"Many will dismiss this film's unrelenting flamboyance as bombastic Baz in ADHD overdrive, a work of shimmering surfaces that refuses to stop long enough to get under its subject's skin. But as a tribute from one champion of outrageous showmanship to another, it dazzles."

Screen Daily's Tim Grierson said: "Butler isn't very successful in suggesting what Presley was like off stage, in part because Elvis' screenplay tends to zip through crucial moments in his life without offering much insight."

But he said the film overall looks "wondrous", praising Catherine Martin's costumes and production design and cinematographer Mandy Walker, who Grierson said "shines during the concert scenes, stripping the shows of musty nostalgia and transforming them into vibrant, urgent experiences".

There was also praise for the supporting cast, with Deadline's Pete Hammond writing: "Olivia De Jonge is superb as Priscilla Presley, especially in moments where she angrily confronts Elvis with his increasing drug addictions."

He also singled out Kelvin Harrison Jr and Alton Mason, who play BB King and Little Richard respectively - who Hammond notes were both "among the Black artists who so clearly influenced Elvis".

Image source, Kane Skennar
Image caption,
Alton Mason plays Little Richard - one of several black artists who inspired Elvis

"Hanks goes for it and nails the enigma of Parker, even if for fans his authentic accent may be a bit disconcerting," he added. "He dives in, subtly showing us a slippery manipulator whose decisions about Presley's career might also be connected in part to hiding his own shady past and gambling addictions."

But the Evening Standard's Charlotte O'Sullivan noted: "Parker's voiceover, as he guides us through Elvis' early years, can be irritating. He's socially conservative, Presley's a loose cannon. We get it. But as the battle between him and his talented young charge hots up, so does the movie.

"The director does undoubtedly simplify the story, whitewashing, for example, Elvis' sleazy sexual tastes," she added. "But the movie isn't simplistic."

Luhrmann's frenetic directing style was highlighted by Justin Chang of the LA Times, who said "his flamboyant stylistic excesses are very much of a piece with Elvis' own".

"The performance sequences crackle with live-wire energy, even when Luhrmann is drawing them out or even slowing them down.... Sometimes Luhrmann will play the concert footage in sizzling black-and-white; sometimes he'll split the screen not into quadrants but octants. It's all a bit much, which means it's just right."

The director's previous film credits include Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby and Strictly Ballroom.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Luhrmann showed off his Elvis belt at the film's Cannes premiere

"Perhaps it's by design that the Elvis Presley of the new biopic Elvis is rendered so unknowable," said Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson. "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."

Jordan Farley of Total Film said: "Some will no doubt take umbrage with the runtime, clocking in as it does at over 150 minutes, but a lack of incident is not the problem - there's enough to Elvis' story to fill 150 hours.

"The issue is that much of interest is skipped over by well-edited montages, or a time jump bridged by a newspaper headline to fill in the gaps. Elvis's initial rise to chart-topping fame is relegated to one such montage, as are most of his Hollywood years.

"The ultimate sense is that nothing happens gradually in Elvis' life - this is a life story in fast forward, but such is the energy that Luhrmann cultivates. At least it's never boring."