In September 2007, 16-year-old Austin Butler guests on an episode of iCarly, the hottest new show on Nickelodeon that had just premiered that month. In his episode, Butler plays a kid name Jake who with his good looks attracts the attention of the main character Carly who invites him onto her web show to play a song. When Jake practices his song, it becomes very clear he can’t sing to save his life leading Carly and her friends Sam and Freddie to AutoTune his voice to make him sound better live.
If you’re like me and were a kid in the late-‘00s, you probably remember this episode as well as Austin Butler. Austin Butler hasn’t exactly been a household name but you’ve seen him whether it was on iCarly or the many other bit parts he had on a lot of the ‘00s era Nickelodeon and Disney live-action shows; Ned’s Declassified, Unfabulous, Zoey 101, Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place.
Looking back at that iCarly appearance, it’s funny now to think that the guy who once played someone who can’t sing is now garnering acclaim for portraying one of the biggest and greatest singers of all time.
Butler’s new movie Elvis comes from Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the man who’s never been afraid of bringing lots of glitter and style to his movies whether it’s Moulin Rouge! or The Great Gatsby. As its title indicates, Luhrmann’s film takes on the life of the one and only Elvis Presley taking us through pretty much his entire life and career with Butler playing Elvis through every iteration of his career from the young, hot, and controversial hip-swiveling performer in the ‘50s to the ’68 Comeback Special to his later years as a regular Vegas act. Another big name in the movie is Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager who we see discovers him causing a frenzy at a country show and realizes the massive potential in him managing Elvis til his death in 1977.
Going into Elvis, I wasn’t sure what to expect going from the conflicting reviews that seem to be the routine for Luhrmann films going from what I remember about The Great Gatsby. But after spending my birthday watching it with my friends, I can say Luhrmann knocked it out of the park with his take on Elvis’ life and music in the way you would expect Luhrmann to with the frantic camera work and unabashedly sugary flair. He doesn’t follow other movies in creating a standard boring biopic but with his flashy style takes you on an adventure through Elvis’ life paying full tribute to him and his impact. It’s over two and a half hours but you’re so enraptured in the story and performance that it doesn’t feel that long.
Aside from Baz Luhrmann, what also makes the film work is Austin Butler as Elvis. As he grew out of his teens, Butler continued finding work with TV’s The Carrie Diaries and in 2019 put in a noteworthy performance as Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Right when the movie came out, Butler was announced for the role of Elvis over more established names like Miles Teller and fellow teen pop star sensation Harry Styles. Butler may have had many doing a double-take given his relatively low profile but watching Elvis it’s clear Luhrmann made the right choice for his Elvis. Butler manages to play Elvis in a way that doesn’t look and feel like a standard impression but like any great actor inhabits his role to where you’re amazed at how much Butler looks and sounds like the real thing. With this and his upcoming role in Dune: Part Two, it’s clear Austin Butler is getting the major breakthrough he’s been working long to achieve.
One major complaint I’ve seen around Elvis is Tom Hanks as Col. Parker with the accent and prosthetics he puts on. Honestly, I don’t mind it. Sure, it can feel distracting at points but he plays Col. Parker as a kind of cartoon villain which is how I always thought about him. Hanks’ Col. Parker narrates much of the film reminding us that it was him that discovered Elvis and made him the King of Rock and Roll we all know him as now. Much of Elvis’ career decisions were all under Col. Parker’s tight control. Decisions were made in his self-interest like not allowing Elvis to tour overseas since it would expose Col. Parker as an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands, therefore, risking deportation. We see Elvis wanting to break away from Col. Parker’s control whether it’s during the ’68 Comeback Special or attempting to split from him only to go back since Col. Parker’s lawsuit would have left him broke. You really understand just how much control Col. Parker had over Elvis in shaping his entire career
If I had to make a complaint about Elvis, it’s the way it practically skims over Elvis’ movie career through most of the ‘60s. All we’re treated to is Hanks’ Col. Parker remarking how the movies kept getting made at quicker and cheaper rates to keep the money and fame flowing as we see Elvis in various film footage. Amid the montage, we get Elvis singing “Viva Las Vegas” over the beat to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” of all things and another Elvis song mashed up with the Backstreet Boys. If Luhrmann really wanted to show just how controlling Col. Parker was over Elvis and his career then why not show the tension between them on the set of one of his movies with Elvis getting fed up with the movies and their cheap quality.
Being a Baz Luhrmann movie and a movie about Elvis, you can expect there to be lots of music. Obviously, many Elvis classics are performed with Butler syncing to Elvis’ vocals while Butler puts his vocals into a few songs. We also get Elvis hanging with many famous Black musicians on Memphis’ Beale Street with Luhrmann highlighting how it was Black music that informed Elvis the most as well as the formation of rock and roll through covers like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” There are also artists doing Elvis covers like Kacey Musgraves doing “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and Måneskin covering “If I Can Dream.” Elsewhere on the soundtrack, we get the usual Luhrmann treatment of melding old sounds with current ones such as Doja Cat rapping over Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog” on “Vegas,” Eminem and Cee-Lo Green singing and rapping over a chopped-up sample of “Jailhouse Rock,” and the Australian dance trio PNAU putting a thumping dance beat over “Suspicious Minds” and “Any Day Now” on “Don’t Fly Away.”
The soundtrack and movie in general feel like Luhrmann and crew doing everything they can to appeal to a younger audience such as myself. Unlike Queen and Elton John who got their own major biopics in recent years, Elvis is someone that feels more distant to young people today. He isn’t exactly as prominent in our culture today as his core fans begin to die off and oldie stations move far away from Elvis’ time. Elvis exists now more for his image than his music. While I understood Elvis’ place in music and cultural history as a kid, compared to the Beatles and everything after he was never someone I cared much about. In 2017, I went to Memphis and Graceland and it was a great experience that helps you understand just how big of an impact Elvis had and still has on pop culture. Thanks to Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler, many more people will now get that same understanding watching Elvis.
So far, this marketing approach seems to be working. In its first weekend, Elvis pulled in over $31 million at the box office just edging out 2022’s highest-grosser so far Top Gun: Maverick after initial estimates had them virtually tied. Much of the turnout for the movie seems to be skewing older. However, this hard-fought victory is a big accomplishment for a two-and-a-half-hour non-franchise and non-Marvel movie on an artist that first got big in the ‘50s appealing primarily to older audiences at a moment when they’re still hesitant to return to theaters after COVID-19. Regardless of how Elvis will do going forward, the movie’s success so far shows that Elvis is still a major attraction for many and that when you have the right people telling his story, people will come.