Elvis review roundup: Austin Butler rocks Baz Luhrmann’s excessive fever dream

Cameron Frew
Austin Butler in Elvis

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic, starring Austin Butler as the King, has critics all shook up in the first reviews coming out of the Cannes Film Festival.

The Moulin Rouge director first entered negotiations to direct the film in 2014, spiraling into years of quiet development before Butler was eventually cast as Elvis, alongside Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, the singer’s manager in his heyday.

Butler beat out the likes of Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Harry Styles for the role, impressing Luhrmann with his Unchained Melody audition tape – not to mention a flattering recommendation by Denzel Washington, whom he worked with on Broadway.

Ahead of its wide release in June, the movie had its world premiere at Cannes yesterday, May 25. The initial reviews have been very mixed; while almost all of them praise Butler’s performance, the film itself has divided critics.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in the new biopic.

What to expect from Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic

Warner Bros. have described Elvis as an “epic, big-screen spectacle” exploring the life and music of the rockstar, as well as his relationship with Priscilla Presley, played by Olivia DeJonge.

Its official synopsis reads: “A thoroughly cinematic drama, Elvis’s (Butler) story is seen through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks).

“As told by Parker, the film delves into the complex dynamic between the two spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America.”

Critics praise Butler as the highlight of Elvis

Clarisse Loughrey of The Independent wrote that Butler manages to pull of an impersonation of the one of the most impersonated celebrities, “at times uncanny without ever coming across as parody.”

She added: “Sure, Butler has the looks, the voice, the stance and the wiggle nailed down, but what’s truly impressive is that indescribable, undistillable essence of Elvis-ness.”

Robbie Collin of The Telegraph heralded Butler’s “irresistible central performance”, noting that his “keen instinct for melodrama and burn-the-screen-down charisma give his Elvis a midcentury Method-acting rawness.”

David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter echoed this praise, writing: “As for the big question of whether Butler could pull off impersonating one of the most indelible icons in American pop-culture history, the answer is an unqualified yes.”

Elvis script and Baz Luhrmann’s direction divides critics

Other elements of the film haven’t earned such plaudits. Owen Gleiberman of Variety described it as “compelling but not always convincing, at once sweeping and scattershot, with a central figure whose life, for a long stretch, feels like it’s being not so much dramatized as illustrated.”

In a particularly scathing review, David Ehrlich of IndieWire called it a “159-minute eyesore” that is “deliriously awful” and likened it to Bohemian Rhapsody at “4,000mph.”

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in Elvis.
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in Elvis.

He also described it as the “most visually anarchic Hollywood film since the Wachowskis’ 2008 Speed Racer”, and while also praising Butler, complained that he’s “buried alive under a rhinestone rollercoaster of weak biopic tropes.”

On the other hand, Joshua Rothkopf of Entertainment Weekly said Elvis eclipses all other biopics which have attempted to “enshrine the King”, likening it to a lost Oliver Stone film from his daring 1990s heyday: a big-canvas exploration of debauched American appetites.”

Kevin Maher of The Times claimed that it’s the director’s best movie since Romeo and Juliet. “Luhrmann has never been an accomplished dramatist. He has the instincts of a pop video supremo. And in pop god Elvis Presley he may have found his perfect subject,” he wrote.

Elvis is due for release in cinemas on June 24, 2022.