Newcomer Austin Butler stars as Elvis Presley in "Elvis."

Newcomer Austin Butler stars as Elvis Presley in "Elvis." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

PLOT The rise and fall of rock’s first superstar.

CAST Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge

RATED PG-13 (adult themes)


WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Visually dazzling biopic of Elvis Presley, but its subject remains maddeningly out of focus.

On paper, what better director than the maximalist, music-besotted Baz Luhrmann to tackle the outsize story of Elvis Presley? The jumpsuits! The belt buckles! The pelvic thrust that shook the world! If Luhrmann could turn Shakespeare into MTV-ready glitz with “Romeo + Juliet” and transform 1900s Paris into a glam extravaganza with “Moulin Rouge!,” just think what he could do with the first human supernova of rock and roll.

Alas, “Elvis” is a little like Presley in his later period: Spectacular looking, to be sure, but overstuffed and unsteady on its feet.

It isn’t the fault of Austin Butler, the unfamiliar face who skillfully nails Presley’s intoxicating blend of animal sexuality, angelic beauty and "aw, shucks" modesty. Nor is it the fault of Tom Hanks, laboring under prosthetics (and adopting a naggingly weird accent) as the Dutch-born Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s shady but shrewd manager. What keeps “Elvis” from coming alive is Luhrmann’s insistence on bolstering Presley the legend (familiar territory, to say the least), rather than showing us the human being within.

Forget the actors — the real star here is production and costume designer Catherine Martin (the director’s longtime collaborator and wife), who lovingly recreates each decade of Presley’s career, from the innocent 1950s to the drugged-out '70s. As for the characters, however, they’re basically additional props. Major figures such as Elvis’ wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), just sort of appear with little explanation; others, like the “Memphis Mafia” sycophants, who would eventually turn against the singer, are barely acknowledged. Luhrmann takes great care in presenting Presley’s most sensational moments, such as the chaotic 1956 Russwood Park concert in Memphis and the galvanizing NBC Christmas special in 1968, but speeds right past Presley’s Army stint, an experience that humbled and humanized the singer.

“Elvis” always prints the legend, and sometimes embellishes even that. It tries to paint Presley as a rebellious maverick who bucked convention and shocked the suits, forgetting that he was unfailingly deferential and well-mannered both in public and in the boardroom. The film also wants to rescue Presley from lingering accusations of racism, showing him carousing with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and weeping copiously after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s true that Presley always credited the Black musicians who inspired him, but casting him as an early beacon of civil rights feels like a stretch.

Where the film succeeds, at least partially, is in highlighting the strangely close relationship between Parker, a crusty old carny, and his client, a superstar with the heart of a wounded child. What kept these two together for 20 years? Maybe it’s as simple as Parker’s words to Presley before a potential breakup: “I, for one, would be very lonely.”

If it’s the full picture of Presley you want, turn to Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography, in which he attempted to save the singer “from the dreary bondage of myth.” Luhrmann has the opposite idea. “Elvis” wants its subject to remain the idol on the stage, larger than life and eternally unknowable.

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