Icon-in-his-own-right Harry Styles auditioned for the lead role in Baz Luhrmann’s sly, libidinous and ultimately wrenching Elvis biopic. Luhrmann, though, plumped for the obscure Austin Butler, and now we know why. Especially in the second half, the 30 year-old actor displays the kind of crazed zeal that Renée Zellweger brought to Judy (it’s a long way off to the 2023 Oscars, but all being well, Butler is guaranteed a nomination). Unlike Elvis, Butler can act. Like Elvis, he can move, and for most of the movie, it’s him singing the songs. Damn, I wish I could tell you more about his voice.
The script’s bleak thesis is that Elvis never left the building. He wasn’t allowed to - the building in question being the International Hotel in Las Vegas, which becomes the singer’s glitzy cage in the late 60s and early 70s, thanks to a deal struck by his Dutch manager, Colonel Tom Parker, here played by an on-form Tom Hanks as a huckster with hamster cheeks and a serpent’s smile.
Parker is our narrator and his 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 phoney Colonel packs Elvis off to the army as Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Bristol maverick Yola) performs a dazzling rendition of Strange Things Happening Every Day. The 1968 Comeback Special shows Elvis fighting his corner, to hilarious and churning effect. Ditto Presley’s 1969 gig in Vegas, which causes even Parker to shed real tears.
Luhrmann has the abundantly talented Southern superstar acknowledge his debt to black culture and try to celebrate the work of civil rights leaders. The man and his music have soul and this is true even during the Las Vegas years.
The director does undoubtedly simplify the story, whitewashing, for example, Elvis’ sleazy sexual tastes. But the movie isn’t simplistic. One villain is terrifyingly close to home and the film does a fine job of contextualising Presley’s sad fate (the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy are presented as infinitely more tragic).
Umpteen reaction shots involve straight women and gay men groaning with delight over Elvis (though no guys threw their boxer shorts at the stage, many clearly wanted to). Luhrmann’s colourful house style can be frantic and shallow, but his desire to get our knickers in a twist, here, feels honest-to-god urgent. This is the most substantial thing he’s done since Romeo + Juliet.
His vision of a divided America is meant to be scary. And his Vegas is a circle of hell. Adele has yet to finalise dates for a highly publicised stint there. If she watches this movie, she may rethink the whole deal.
159mins, cert 12A
In cinemas from June 24