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Austin Butler is 'All Shook Up' in Luhrmann's 'Elvis'

Since I first learned of an Elvis biopic in the works, I couldn’t wait to see it. Elvis truly is a legend in every sense of the word – by synthesizing rock, country, and gospel, he revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll, earning the title of “The King.” The way he owned the stage both amazed and greatly offended audiences, thoroughly transforming the way live performances were delivered. This is what I knew going in; but leaving the movie theater, I learned that he was so much more than that.

Biopics are often subject to immense dramatization leaving the story buried under layers of flashy costumes and randomly-placed ballads until the audience can hardly differentiate fact from fiction. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, however, masterfully married spectacle and truth (though not without its fair share of said costumes and ballads). For one, by discarding chronology and providing us with the unreliable narration of the Colonel, Luhrmann primes the viewer with uneasiness from the very beginning. Beyond that, the choice to have the Colonel implicate the viewers, the fans, as the reason for Elvis’s death was so unparalleled, so shocking, my jaw may have quite literally dropped on the floor. “I’ll tell you what killed him: it was love – his love for you,” accused the Colonel. This choice exacerbated the brewing uneasiness to the point where the audience was no longer simply a viewer but a participant, filled to the brim with self-doubt by the notion that the antagonist was not the Colonel, but perhaps themselves.

I will admit that with my limited knowledge of Austin Butler’s performance history, I was a little unsure about how the boyfriend in Zoey 101 would deliver as Elvis. But the second Butler appeared on the screen, my reservations vanished. There is no other way to describe his performance other than that he exuded Elvis. From his spectacular vocals to his confident presence to his dancing, no one could have played The King more brilliantly than Austin Butler. It’s really no shock that he immersed himself in the role in isolation for two years.

I must also say that I have absolutely never hated a Tom Hanks character like I did when watching him as the Colonel. Whether it be Woody, Forrest Gump, or Sam Baldwin, I’ve never encountered a version of Tom Hanks I’ve despised with this much gusto. The Colonel’s antagonization of the audience, his stalking of Elvis before he was famous, his lethal grip on him once he was – the hatred subsequently protruding from the audience in the theater was tangible.

Moreover, this film brings to light an incredibly significant influence on Elvis as a person and his music; namely, the work of black artists including B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Little Richard, in addition to others. The film elucidates how Elvis’s rendition of their music helped bring black music into white homes, whereas otherwise, they would have continued to struggle to break that threshold. Elvis’s connection to Memphis’s Beale Street, a historically black place, and his life as a child growing up in a predominantly black area, are spotlighted as well due to their importance to the development of his unique musical style. The film mostly shies away from confronting the political issues of the time but does place an emphasis on Elvis’s reaction to the assassinations of the ‘60s and the ensuing debate between Elvis and the Colonel about his future involvement in controversial political discussions.

Another aspect of this film that stood out to me was, probably most obviously, the soundtrack. Austin Butler underwent intense vocal training starting more than a year before filming which is evident when he speaks and when he sings. However, it’s important that the makers of the film acknowledged that no one’s voice can be quite like the King’s. Thus, as the film progresses and Elvis ages, increasing amounts of the real midlife Elvis’s voice blend in with Butler’s.

It’s also necessary to pay homage to the costume design of Catherine Martin. One of the most controversial things about Elvis was his dance moves, and Martin understood that: “We worked on a lot of different ways to structure the jackets to allow fluidity and the sexuality to come through…The clothes needed to exaggerate the wiggle. There was a lot of R&D involved,” Martin explained, as per The Hollywood Reporter. She designed over 90 costumes from scratch for the film, taking special care to allow for lots of movement. “That extra room of not doing the top button [of his suits] allowed Austin to get in all the fabulous Elvis shoulder rolls,” Martin said she learned by observing the real Elvis, according to Variety.


When the visual, musical, and conceptual aspects of this film came together with Elvis’s story, fireworks were created. Despite the mostly negative critic response, Elvis truly is an engaging, powerfully tragic depiction of the king of rock ‘n’ roll, coalescing drama and reality in a shocking, unprecedented way.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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