“Elvis” Hits HBO Max

Austin Butler embodies the rock-and-roll icon in the flawed, but flashy Baz Luhrmann film.

Photo Courtesy / YouTube Warner Bros. Pictures

“Elvis” —  the glitzy, 159-minute, whirlwind of a biopic directed by Baz Luhrman — is now available for audiences to stream on HBO Max. The film, initially released in theaters this past  June, portrays the meteoric rise to fame and rapid decline of  “The King of Rock n’ Roll” and all-around pop-culture icon, Elvis Presley.

Presley died in 1977 at the age of 42. His cause of death was labeled as a heart attack, likely brought on by an addiction to prescription drugs. The film largely chooses to stay away from portraying Preseley’s substance abuse issues, and steers entirely clear of attempting to replicate Elvis’s death in any way. 

Opting instead to jump around to different periods of his life allows Luhrman to highlight Elvis’s overwhelming charisma, and in turn, paint the late artist in a more sympathetic light. 

Presley is played brilliantly by Austin Butler, who leaps off the screen and embodies Elvis’s mannerisms and speaking voice well  to the point that it’s almost eerie. Though a star-making performance that’s almost guaranteed to secure Butler an Oscar nomination this upcoming spring, Butler still can’t manage to entirely save “Elvis” from its cinematic and narrative shortcomings.

The film opens with an acid-dipped montage, narrated by ‘Colonel Tom Parker,’ that sets the tone for the rest of the run-time. ‘The Colonel,’ Presley’s long-time manager played by two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, wears a cartoonish fat suit and a mountain of prosthetics, serving as our entry into the world of “Elvis.”

Hanks’ performative ticks and Dutch accent prove to be problematic right away. In a movie ostensibly centered around Elvis, ‘The Colonel,’ won’t stop butting into frame to explain his side of the story. 

When Butler is on screen, and especially when he’s performing in front of a live audience, the film springs to life and is really enjoyable. But this momentum is almost always interrupted by yet another monologue from the decrepit ‘Colonel,’ trying to explain why he’s not actually the villain.  It’s an odd way to provide the audience with expository dialogue, and the performance itself verges into the realm of  “SNL” parody. 

Additionally, the movie refuses to sit still. The camera is always moving, zooming, tracking and cutting. While interesting, this proves to be more exhaustive than artistically resonate. The entire film has the same drug-riddled energy as Henry Hill seeing helicopters in the last half-hour of “Goodfellas”. 

The direction feels like Luhrman attempting to wink at his audience with both eyes, and the constant movement could possibly be interpreted as an allegory for fame. More often, over the course of two hours and thirty-nine minutes, it feels more like an out-of-control roller coaster ride than it does a metaphor. 

Butler is magnetic, and his performance alone merits repeat viewings and examination, but the film itself plays out like a series of fractured vignettes, rather than a cohesive narrative story. 

If Butler does win the Oscar, he’ll be lumped into the same category as Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” and Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” actors whose singular performances outshined the movies they were contained in. 

HBO Max has a variety of other Elvis-related content for audiences to stream, including three concert documentaries, “This is Elvis”, “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is” and “Elvis Presley: The Searcher”, as well as two movies starring Presley himself, “Viva Las Vegas” and “Speedway”.