Now Reading: Austin Butler Puts On The Performance Of His Life In Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”


Austin Butler Puts On The Performance Of His Life In Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”

June 29, 202219 min read

One might not think to feature Doja Cat and Britney Spears’ “Toxic” in a biopic centered on the King of Rock ‘n Roll, but somehow, Baz Luhrmann made it work. Trap remixes, Austin Butler with a drawling country accent, animated sequences, crotch zoom-ins—Elvis has it all. The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge! director has added his magical touch to yet another dazzling film, and I’m still shocked hours after viewing it, to say the least.

Released on June 24th, Elvis has been well over a year in the making. With the release of the latest rock-legend biopics such as Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, it seemed as though competition may have been tight, but this hillbilly-rock film was a biopic like no other, and quite frankly. Elvis blew the others out of the water in certain aspects. It was glamorous, over-the-top, ridiculous and glossed-over issues while it somehow remained authentic. It was even mind-numbingly over-produced, at times (in fact, I left the theater with a headache due to all the flashing colors and whiplash-inducing camera angles). I tried so hard to be critical, but I found myself falling into blind love with a man who existed well before I was even born. I felt like one of the numerous girls fainting and screaming at just the slight wiggle of Butler’s hips.

The film didn’t feel like just a music biopic. It wasn’t great only due to the nostalgia factor, or the quality of the artist’s music or living conditions, like most biopics. In fact, half of the music featured wasn’t even Elvis’. Of course, it was nostalgic and the exciting events of his life obviously did have an overall effect on the quality, but I was so relieved to see that it was so much more than a simple, straightforward life story. It was a whirlwind supercut of the best and worst moment’s of Elvis’ life, coated in glitter and rhinestones, missing just a couple truths. To put it simply, the film was a total heart-throb flick. It put you right in the shoes of the girls swooning for their television sets blasting “Jailhouse Rock” nearly seventy years ago.

Before Elvis, other musician’s biopics have just failed to capture audiences in the same way their subject matters once did onstage. No offense to Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, but I wasn’t exactly losing my mind over his prosthetic buck teeth. On the other hand, I nearly gasped when I first saw Butler in that baggy pink suit. Luhrmann has been receiving criticism for using Butler’s looks as the spectacle of his show, but in reality, that’s what Elvis was: a slicked-back pretty boy who could sing with the “strength of two men.” All Butler is missing in real life is that inky hair and gritty voice—he’s practically Elvis in every other aspect.

Austin Butler has an “it-factor” about him in his latest performance, well beyond his looks, though. He has somehow transformed from a Disney Channel extra and Carrie Diaries love interest into a stone-cold legend. It was completely unexpected coming from him.

Austin Butler Stole The Show

Speculations surrounding the casting roused excitement back in 2019, with notable names like Top Gun: Maverick heartthrob Miles Teller and British superstar Harry Styles in the running. However, it couldn’t have made more sense that Austin Butler was crowned the new King of Rock. Everything about him imitates Elvis: his dreamy eyes and porcelain skin, his smolder and retro slicked-back hair. The casting couldn’t have been more spot-on. This proved true throughout the entire movie, often making me wonder whether I was watching old clips of Elvis, at times.

The last time I saw Butler act, I was watching the Carrie DiariesHe was a lanky, blond school-boy crush, spending his screen time leading a young Carrie Bradshaw along. He has undoubtedly come a long way in both his acting skills and prestige. To put it gently, his guest star stint on Hannah Montana wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy material. For me, at least, Butler was an extremely unexpected candidate for a performance of this magnitude, but I believe he may have been saving all his energy for this project.

What I saw on that silver screen was a performance that took real dedication and a deep love for acting. There were few, possibly even no moments where I cringed as a result of his acting. It was evident that he invested himself deeply into this role, studying every little mannerism and movement Presley ever made. His dancing was insanely accurate and energetic, seemingly free-flowing throughout his body like a live wire.

I could truly see a young, ambitious little boy grow into the shoes of a worldwide phenomenon, then take a turn for the worst, transforming into an apathetic shell of his old self. His rage was visible in his eyes when forced into a coattail and bowtie, the authenticity dripping off him in every bead of sweat. During performances, I could almost believe that nearly-operatic voice belonged to him due to his efforts to mimic those iconic, sporadic movements that deemed the singer “Elvis the Pelvis.”

Austin Butler was beyond believable as Elvis, practically identical to him. This was the most favored portrayal of Presley by his family, with his ex-wife and children supporting and promoting the film avidly, even appearing at the Cannes Film Festival next to Luhrmann and cast.

Luhrmann’s Spin On Elvis

What about this film channels the same energy that Elvis had back in the 50’s and 60’s? Why are audiences giving 12-minute standing ovations and swooning over Butler just like fans did back in the day? There is a certain star power that Luhrmann harnessed in making this film that the rockstar had in his prime. It’s comprised of looks, glamor and shock value.

In the best way possible, Elvis was an experience similar to sensory overload.

Just by the opening Warner Brothers sequence bedazzled in technicolor rhinestones and glitter, I knew what I was getting into. Glimmering Vegas signs, intricate caped-costumes with fringe and stones, the pink Cadillacs—I loved the outrageousness. It was accurate to the time period, yet still played up, with women in their Sunday best ripping pink blazers off Elvis’ back and men dawning rhinestone cowboy attire throughout the beginning. He and Priscilla’s costumes were just perfect, with the huge beehive hair and the tinted sunglasses featured constantly post-Germany. It was true to reality, as Elvis was groundbreaking with his flair for clothes and makeup, but it was still an ever-so-slightly amped-up version created by Luhrmann’s ever-lavish vision.

The layout of the film was jarring and unexpected, at times. It was the style of the film that was most shocking to me. The plot was broken up and out of order, but still easily comprehensible. The jumps made it more dramatic, giving glimpses of what was to come, as the audience already knows the singer’s story—one of the most tragic tales of quick fame and a beloved, yet tormented star. There are no opportunities for spoilers when you already know the end, but I was still left shocked at all points of this film.

It was a bold gesture, what Luhrmann did with both the production and the creative image of Presley’s story. The added elements of trap remixes and modern music, similar to what he did with the Great Gatsby soundtrack, gave the film such a perfect modern touch without being too overbearing on the retro era subject matter. It incorporated more Black artists’ music, such as Doja Cat and CeeLo Green, who Elvis’ career practically was founded on, as he mostly covered songs from Black artists during his rise to fame and is still known for them to this day.

The Unglamorous Truth, Missing

Austin Butler is currently being accused of playing a revised version of Elvis, with criticism also pointed toward’s the new film’s overlooked history. There has been a constant debate dating back decades surrounding Elvis’ involvement in and profit off of Black culture. Presley arguably got his start in the music industry because of Black artists, with his prominent use of Black music styles and performative mannerisms. Though Butler is simply just doing his job as an actor, there is undoubtedly controversy surrounding his portrayal.

Although Elvis has long been considered the King of Rock, even Elvis himself claimed that rock had been around long before his rise to fame in the Black community. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along,” Presley explained during an interview.

Just based on the film, I do think there was a decent job of illustrating Elvis’ roots growing up in mostly Black communities that inspired his interest in traditionally Black styles of music, as well as his involvement in the rock and roll scene with artists such as B.B. King and Willie Mae Thornton. Butler was shown in many scenes, harmonizing with his renowned Black peers and admiring one of his idols-turned-collaborators, Arthur Crudup.

Prior to his entry into the industry with the predominantly African American Sun Records, Elvis grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi and later moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and was often surrounded by Black musicians and church culture, according to his childhood best friend. However, it was an extremely over-polished version of the truth, with Elvis being painted as a close friend and bystander in the Black rock scene, when in reality, he made most his profits off hits belonging to such notable Black names with little credit being traced back.

Elvis has undoubtedly been deemed a racist and thief for decades, as some of his biggest hits, like “Houng Dog,” came directly from the mouths of black singers, along with his influences of jazz and blues.

However, Thornton’s 1952 version of “Hound Dog” was far from underground, earning her a groundbreaking hit and widespread notability. It was also written by two Jewish teens, rather than Thornton herself, so while it was a song destined for Thornton originally, the rights never were truly in her hands, though the song became her claim-to-fame along with her impressive vocals. She and Elvis both made the song popular in their own different ways, just four years apart, and although Elvis undoubtedly cast a massive shadow over her version, the lack of profits she received also stemmed from her record label contract.

When discussing Elvis, B.B. King once said, “I don’t think he [Elvis] ripped ’em off. I think once something has been exposed, anyone can add or take from it if they like. He was just so great, so popular, and so hot – and so anything that he played became a hit. To me, they didn’t make a mistake when they called him The King.”

Was Elvis a complete racist? The verdict is: he was no civil rights leader, but he wasn’t exactly a bigot. The reason why he can be considered racist is his close ties to the community and their culture as a vastly successful white man, which is inherently detrimental to smaller Black artists when he used their work, due to his face being attached to their intellectual property by default. Luhrmann himself said, “You can’t tell the story of Elvis Presley without telling the story of Black American rhythm and blues, Pentecostal gospel.” Luhrmann and Butler’s attempts to portray this story, along with Elvis’, was not completely a failed attempt, but it was simply just too polished.

It was slightly misleading, portraying Elvis as just a friend and ally to the Black artists of his time, hanging around Beale Street in the clubs, when in reality, he was inherently silencing their voices, even if unintentionally. While this has been an ongoing debate, unfortunately, Butler has had his performance dampened by this murky lack of depth surrounding these racial issues that stemmed from his interactions with the Black music community that took up a large portion of the film.

Butler Carries Presley’s Legacy Into Gen Z

Luhrmann, though he was eccentric and over-polished in his take, successfully portrayed Elvis Presley in a modern and glamorous light, breathing new life into the legend’s famed story. Though Elvis was the center of attention in this film, as he always was, a new star was bred from this production. Austin Butler was sensational, and now the world has seen what he has to offer. Quite simply, the other contenders couldn’t have brought the energy required to play such a big personality.

With Butler having a prior following due to his past performances and charming looks, many were already anticipating his performance in this movie.  However, those who went for Butler came out of the theater enthralled with the King himself, infecting yet another generation with the Elvis craze. In fact, it is tied for this year’s blockbuster, rivaling Top Gun at a whopping $30 million opening weekend. If that doesn’t speak volumes of Butler’s performance and Elvis’ generational influence, I don’t know what does.

Nearly fifty years after the singer’s death, the world is still remembering the King of Rock. Despite the tumultuous nature of his music career, personal life and death, the supercut of Elvis’ life still proves glamorous and fascinating in the end. With the combination of Baz Luhrmann’s sparkling vision and Austin Butler’s energetic, authentic performance, Presley’s legacy lives to see and conquer yet another generation.

Featured image via Elvis IMDb

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Mary Dodys

I cover the politics of pop culture—from celebrities scandals to the flaws in cancel culture. I'm always down for an album review, too. You can find me creating, whether I'm writing or painting.