Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis Presley biopic is set in an endless present in which Presley’s music, a foundational component of early rock and roll, flows out of the blues, country, and gospel music that preceded it—the sounds of people like Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Hank Snow, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe—and onward into rap and other musical variants that have surfaced in its long wake. So we get Elvis’ early R&B covers, and his pink Cadillac and gaudy Beale Street cat clothes, but we also get Doja Cat and Swae Lee on the soundtrack, and, at the end, a scorching rap by Eminem called “The King and I.” I know that last item sounds like an occasion for nationwide face-palming, but it’s a measure of Luhrman’s creative determination that it isn’t—that it feels right. It feels like rock and roll.
Elvis is propelled by the director’s customary flash-bang energy and is held together by tightly edited biographical montages that manage to fit quite a lot of Presley’s eventful life into a tightly packed two hour and 39-minute runtime. What really carries the picture, though—what boots it along from beginning to end—is the seductive, a-star-is-born lead performance by Austin Butler, who plays Elvis as a honey-voiced kid with a gift for something that nobody can quite put a name to at first, least of all him. Butler isn’t an exact physical match for Presley—who would be? But he has the man’s sleepy eyes and fleshy pout, and he captures the conflicted soul of a straight-arrow mama’s boy with a growing need for powerful drugs, and the numbing isolation of a man who conquered the world but died alone on a bathroom floor in Memphis.
Luhrmann makes interesting cultural connections right away, linking the ecstatic tent-show religious rituals of Presley’s Mississippi boyhood to the secular showbiz excitements toward which he was headed. The director cuts back and forth from a wall-shaking rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” at a rural revival meeting to a shot of bluesman Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) playing his guitar in a club and singing “That’s All Right”—a song he recorded in 1946,
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