Young star – and a dastardly Tom Hanks – make Elvis biopic a spectacle, writes BRIAN VINER 

Elvis (12A)

Rating:

Blue suede shoes trod the red nylon carpet last night as an enthusiastic audience at the Cannes Film Festival arrived to see the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s keenly awaited biopic Elvis.

The film stars former Disney Channel favourite Austin Butler in the exalted title role, as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, with Tom Hanks as his overbearing manager Colonel Tom Parker.

It is rare to find Hanks playing a character practically without virtue, so it perhaps helps that he is prosthetised almost beyond recognition beneath a fat suit, sporting acres of wobbly jowls and an elongated nose, like a corpulent version of the sinister Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

At any rate, Hanks really does appear to have left the building.

A new biopic about Elvis Presley's life, called Elvis, premiered at Cannes film festival and will be released towards the end of next month

A new biopic about Elvis Presley's life, called Elvis, premiered at Cannes film festival and will be released towards the end of next month

A new biopic about Elvis Presley’s life, called Elvis, premiered at Cannes film festival and will be released towards the end of next month

Tom Hanks looks barely recognisable in the film wearing a fat suit while sat across from Austin playing Elvis

Tom Hanks looks barely recognisable in the film wearing a fat suit while sat across from Austin playing Elvis

Tom Hanks looks barely recognisable in the film wearing a fat suit while sat across from Austin playing Elvis

Brian Viner says that Austin Butler gives a 'genuine virtuoso performance'  as Elvis

Brian Viner says that Austin Butler gives a 'genuine virtuoso performance'  as Elvis

Brian Viner says that Austin Butler gives a ‘genuine virtuoso performance’  as Elvis

Austin Butler attended the screening of 'Elvis' at the 75th annual Cannes film festival alongside Priscilla Presley

Austin Butler attended the screening of 'Elvis' at the 75th annual Cannes film festival alongside Priscilla Presley

Austin Butler attended the screening of ‘Elvis’ at the 75th annual Cannes film festival alongside Priscilla Presley

Kaia Gerber, Austin's girlfriend, attended the film premiere in a stunning red dress to support her partner

Kaia Gerber, Austin's girlfriend, attended the film premiere in a stunning red dress to support her partner

Kaia Gerber, Austin’s girlfriend, attended the film premiere in a stunning red dress to support her partner

Those unaware that Colonel Tom was actually born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the southern Netherlands will be bewildered by his accent (which in truth sounds more mittel-European than Dutch), because Parker’s background, and his illegal arrival in the United States at the age of 20, is referred to only obliquely.

But then he also acts as the film’s narrator, and why would he emphasise his own foreignness?

Instead, he tells us snippily at the start that ‘there are some who make me out to be the villain of this here story’.

It’s entirely untrue, he adds, that his unrelenting demands helped to finish off his famous protege, who died aged 42 in 1977. ‘I didn’t kill him,’ he says. ‘I made Elvis Presley.’

Over two hours and 39 minutes (Luhrmann is not known for his film-making brevity) we get to draw our own conclusions.

And in fairness Parker comes across as a brilliant entrepreneur with a gimlet eye for the main chance.

Sharon Stone attended the screening looking suitably rock and roll with her tinted sunglasses

Sharon Stone attended the screening looking suitably rock and roll with her tinted sunglasses

Sharon Stone attended the screening looking suitably rock and roll with her tinted sunglasses

Kylie Minogue wore a black corset detailed gown and silver choker with green diamonds on the red carpet

Kylie Minogue wore a black corset detailed gown and silver choker with green diamonds on the red carpet

Kylie Minogue wore a black corset detailed gown and silver choker with green diamonds on the red carpet

As the film tells it, he all but invents the concept of merchandising, and even has ‘I Hate Elvis’ badges made alongside the ‘I Love Elvis’ badges – on the basis that not everyone will be a fan, so they might as well make money out of the detractors, too.

But the film’s message is really that nobody except Elvis made Elvis, much as he wallows in the influences of black artists such as Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Little Richard (Alton Mason) and BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jnr).

Usefully, even if he looks rather more like the young John Travolta than the young Elvis Presley, Butler gives a genuine virtuoso performance that is far more than an impersonation.

Last week in Cannes it even had the stamp of approval from Riley Keough, who came to unveil her debut directorial feature War Pony, but also happens to be Elvis’s granddaughter.

As she and the rest of us are well aware, there are a thousand nightclub Elvises out there who can reproduce the famous lip curl.

Sensibly, Butler doesn’t attempt it, swerving away from caricature.

But he has the voice and the moves, and nails the picture’s best scene, when in 1954 Elvis gives his first live performance and the girls in the audience begin to swoon.

‘It vos,’ declares the former fairground huckster Colonel Tom, ‘the greatest carnival attraction I’d ever seen’.

Elvis’s effect on them was like that of a charismatic young evangelical preacher.

And Luhrmann gives us a glimpse into another of his influences, flashing back to 1947 to show us a wide-eyed kid, in the Mississippi boondocks, watching a Christian revivalist meeting.

Yet the main focus of the film is the 23-year period between the great star’s rise to fame and his sad demise, from those early recordings for Sam Phillips (Josh McConville) at Sun Studio in Memphis and moving his beloved mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) into the nearby Graceland mansion (scenes with conspicuous echoes of The Beverly Hillbillies), to making movies, joining the army, meeting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and the final, overweight, unhappy Vegas years.

With faint malevolence (and a degenerate gambling habit) Parker orchestrates it all, indeed the segregationist senator Jim Eastland (Nicholas Bell), who wants Presley and his ‘lewd gyrations’ banned, is by no means the film’s primary villain.

It was clever of Luhrmann to tell the story of Elvis through the self-serving eyes of Colonel Tom and cleverer still to cast Hanks.

Moreover, a little like the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman, if not quite as much as Luhrmann’s own Moulin Rouge! (2001), this film is playfully presented, with tricksy editing, split screens, slow-mo, animation, the works – making it as much a spectacle as a story.

Will it leave you all shook up? Not quite. But it’s very smartly done.

Elvis opens in cinemas on Friday June 24.

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