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Austin Butler brings the King's moves, mannerisms and voice in 'Elvis'


What happens when the king of movie extravagance meets the king of rock 'n' roll?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ladies and gentlemen, here's Elvis Presley.

KELLY: Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, who made "Moulin Rouge," doesn't do anything small. Well, neither did Elvis. So the movie? Well, as Presley might say...


AUSTIN BUTLER: (As Elvis) This ain't no nostalgia show. We're going to do something different.

KELLY: Our critic Bob Mondello is here to tell us how that worked out.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Baz Luhrmann is not one to ease into flamboyance. Before the movie even starts, he's bejeweled the Warner Brothers logo with enough diamonds and rubies to make Liberace lightheaded. And what follows in the first hour, a kind of fever dream that leaps from carnival sideshow, where Colonel Tom Parker introduces himself...


TOM HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) There are some who would make me out to be the villain of this here story.

MONDELLO: ...To a poor Black shantytown where an adolescent white boy peeps into juke joints and gets swept into a gospel revival tent; all of it coming together on the night that that boy, now a teenager, steps nervously in front of an audience for the first time.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He's a young singer from Memphis, Tenn. Give him a warm Hayride welcome to a Mr. Elvis Presley.

MONDELLO: Unknown to Elvis, Colonel Parker's in the wings, noting the loose-fitting pink suits, the Brylcreemed hair flopping in his eyes.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Get a haircut, buttercup.


HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) In that moment, I watched that skinny boy transform into a superhero.

BUTLER: (As Elvis, singing) Well, you may go to college. You may go to school.

MONDELLO: As he bounces with his guitar, the camera cuts between him and the audience, the young women in the audience who are transfixed and shrieking.


BUTLER: (As Elvis) What are they hollering at?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) The wiggle.

BUTLER: (As Elvis) The what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Them girls want to see you wiggle. Move, man.

MONDELLO: So he wiggles, and they shriek. And director Baz Luhrmann indulges in a series of shots I think we'll have to call crotch zooms, while Colonel Parker, who has up to this point been a promoter of carnival sideshow acts that make you feel things you're not sure you should feel, takes it all in.


HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) Now, I don't know nothing about music, but I could see in that girl's eyes he was a taste of forbidden fruit. She could have eaten him alive.

MONDELLO: By this time, any doubts you had going in about whether actor Austin Butler could fully capture Elvis will have evaporated. Butler has the moves, the mannerisms, the voice. He sings about a third of the songs himself, especially these early ones. He's not so much impersonating Elvis as inhabiting him - sexy as hell, yet innocent enough to fall for the high-on-a-Ferris-wheel pitch of Colonel Parker...


HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) I wish to promote you, Mr. Presley.

MONDELLO: ...Who has Elvis both trapped and in some peril.


HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) Are you ready to fly?

BUTLER: (As Elvis) I'm ready, ready to fly.

MONDELLO: How you feel about Tom Hanks' vaguely reptilian Parker will have a lot to do with how you feel about the movie. He's unavoidable, performing from under what must be pounds of latex jowls with a cartoonish accent.


HANKS: (As Colonel Tom Parker) We are the same, you and I. We are two odd, lonely children reaching for eternity.

MONDELLO: None of which obscure the fact that he's Tom Hanks. Colonel Parker is a fraud, but Luhrmann's portraying him is such a blatant one makes Butler's Elvis look like an idiot for listening to him. Happily, when he's performing or the film follows him to the Black music clubs on Beale Street...


BUTLER: (As Elvis) You ain't nothing but a hound dog.

MONDELLO: ...Where he picked up the rhythms and physicality...


BUTLER: (As Elvis) You ain't nothing but a hound dog.

MONDELLO: ...That made him so threatening to the white establishment, the story is on firmer ground.


BUTLER: (As Elvis) Oh. They're going to put me in jail.

HELEN THOMSON: (As Gladys) The way you sing is God given, so there can't be nothing wrong with it.

MONDELLO: Luhrmann manages to sustain the swooning fever-dream quality for a little over half the film, but it dissipates as Elvis heads for the Army and Hollywood and hits a career slump. By the time he's doing a TV comeback special, the movie kind of needs a comeback, too. Still, if Elvis Presley is on a downward spiral as he dons the spangled jumpsuits of his Vegas era, Austin Butler sure isn't. Luhrmann's given him a star vehicle in "Elvis," and he's grabbed it with lip curled, hips swiveling and charisma to spare.

I'm Bob Mondello.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Elvis has left the building. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.