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Review: ‘Elvis’ shakes things up with rockin’ new movie

The king of rock ‘n’ roll Elvis Presley makes a splashy, stylish return to the big screen in the self-titled drama “Elvis.” The Baz Luhrmann-directed film costars an obese and Svengali-like promoter played by Tom Hanks who swindles and works E.P., played by Austin Butler, to death.

"Elvis" movie poster
"Elvis" costars Austin Butler as the king of rock 'n' roll and Tom Hanks as Presley's corrupt manager in a new movie directed by Baz Luhrmann. The new release is playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter and the Sunset Cinema in Jenkins.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
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BAXTER — It’s been said, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

The king of rock ‘n’ roll knew this better than most. After years of drug abuse and being taken advantage of by his manager Col. Tom Parker, the icon Elvis Presley died at the age of 42.

The crooner, trailblazer, hit-maker, actor and sex symbol is brought back to life in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” a splashy, sorrowful new release about the tragic life and death of Presley.

The biographical film costars Tom Hanks as the enigmatic Parker and relative newcomer Austin Butler as Presley, from his start in the music business until his death related to heart disease.

And, boy, does Butler have some big blue suede shoes to fill. Presley is one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, even if today’s youth have not heard his music.

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President Richard Nixon shakes hands with Elvis Presley in the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. in December 1970 after the little-known meeting.
Contributed / Oliver F. Atkins via Reuters

“Elvis has left the building,” as they use to say, but the Mississippi native caused a seismic shift in American culture and race relations between Blacks and whites while he was alive.

Playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter and the Sunset Cinema in Jenkins, the new movie traces Presley’s life from the start of his music career in 1954, recording at Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips, who sought to bring the sound of Black music to the masses.

Butler captures the essence of Presley, with the singer’s facial quirks, such as the well-known lip curl, to the hangdog or bashful look the rock ‘n’ roller often sported in the glare of the spotlight.

The major motion picture even references Presley’s then-scandalous hip-swiveling gyrations that made young girls swoon — and adults nervous or outraged — which were more due to his nervousness at performing live on stage rather than a calculated attempt at debauchery.

Those expecting to hear Presley’s well-known, chart-topping hits during the big-screen biopic may be surprised as I was that the new movie was unexpectedly restrained in their use.

Luhrmann starts off with a hyperkinetic visual style in era-appropriate costumes, props and scenery that may be mildly disorienting to begin with for unfamiliar audiences who may not have been born while Presley was alive or only born after his death almost half a century ago.

“Elvis” switches gears later on with a dramatic tone in the film, which runs almost three hours long and is rated PG-13. It does not present a sanitized version of his life but warts and all.

The best-selling solo music artist of all time is taken to task on the big screen for his cultural appropriation of Black music and profiting off of it because he was white, his numerous affairs, his substance abuse, and his increasingly delusional and paranoid behavior of an egomaniac.

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“Elvis” delves into the toxic co-dependent relationship between Parker, played by an overweight-looking Hanks, that few Presley fans like myself even really knew about until now.

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Elvis Presley plays guitar during a concert in Fort Worth, Texas, early in his career.
Contributed / Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS

Parker got his start in show business on the carnival circuit, hawking acts as a shameless promoter who was shrewd at finances but paradoxically oblivious to the artistry of Presley.

Parker saw a cash cow or golden goose in Presley, whose initial recordings with Sun Records were continuously played on the radio due to the demand of America’s youth at the time.

Frank Lee
Frank Lee

He knew little about the merits of Presley’s music but did recognize a gravy train when he saw one, witnessing the effect Presley had on audiences who were often whipped into a frenzy.

The charlatan Parker soon took advantage of Presley and his simple-minded family and preyed upon their insecurities, and Presley soon becomes Parker’s only client.

Parker finagles his way into the young man’s life, isolates him as a would-be abuser would, and arranges outrageous contracts that saw the manager make almost half of what Presley made.

The modern-day equivalent of slave wages saw Parker working Presley to death with little concern for the performer’s well-being in the movie, which was made with his estate’s blessing.

MORE MOVIE COLUMNS BY FRANK LEE:
“Bullet Train” stars Brad Pitt as a reluctant assassin who is put back into service by handler Sandra Bullock to retrieve a briefcase of great value aboard one of Japan’s famous high-speed bullet trains. The coveted item, however, is also sought by other deadly individuals on the train.

Director Luhrmann is best known for his romantic comedy “Strictly Ballroom” (1992) and romantic tragedies “William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet” (1996) and “Moulin Rouge!” (2001).

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“Elvis” currently holds a 79% approval rating among critics and a 94% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

The consensus from the critics at RottenTomatoes.com: “The standard rock biopic formula gets all shook up in ‘Elvis,’ with Baz Luhrmann's dazzling energy and style perfectly complemented by Austin Butler's outstanding lead performance.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bdfilmforum .

Related Topics: MOVIESTHINGS TO DO BRAINERDMUSIC
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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