When he’s fully costumed and made up, he passes for a pretty good young Elvis. But his accomplishment goes far beyond imitation: Austin Butler is able to create a vision of Elvis that not only captures his alluring charisma but also his more vulnerable side, which alternates between stubborn and weak-willed in a way that makes him the… Would make perfect characters for someone like the Colonel.
If the academy was ready to give Rami Malek an Oscar for his performance as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Butler deserves to be in a similar conversation. His physicality, especially in the early years of Elvis’ career, lets you understand exactly why he had such an impact on teenagers back then. Luhrmann turns his first public appearance into a meal, and comedicly plays the primal urges that Elvis would unleash in the girls in the audience. But he’s very effective in showing what a unique entertainer our boy was in bringing a different style of music to white teenagers across America.
That, however, is something like the elephant in the room in every film about Elvis: the fact that he made his fortune marketing black music to white audiences without black entertainers getting a dime. And to be fair, “Elvis” doesn’t ignore this dynamic. Elvis’ friendship with BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is explored, as is his willingness to engage with black musicians and audiences in black town at a time when it wouldn’t bring him many friends. The film reveals how the outcry over his hip-twitch dance style was in part racially motivated.
We see his reaction to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and it is clear that he takes care. But the film doesn’t go any further, and it doesn’t take the time to examine the fact that it doesn’t go any further. Nor does it address Elvis’ right-wing law-and-order tendencies later in life and how we can reconcile these two equally established parts of him. It does just enough to make you wish it was willing to question that racial dynamic a little more.