Elvis

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis tells the story of a performer who, if you’re versed in American popular culture, needs no introduction.  This movie, however, is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill biopic.  While the movie does a decent job of recounting the key events of Elvis’ life, it intends to remind us of how exciting Elvis was as a performer.  Mission most definitely accomplished there, as Austin Butler and director Luhrmann amazingly channel the electricity of Elvis on stage, when he was at his best.  The movie also tries to refurbish Elvis’ image by addressing criticisms of racism and cultural appropriation.  Even though the movie’s attempts were made in good-faith, I doubt they will likely win over any new converts.

Given how familiar the audience seeing Elvis will already be with the man in question, the movie takes a different approach by telling Elvis’ story from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), his manager.  This approach works, but the movie ends up feeling more like it should have been called Elvis and the Colonel.  As it stands, the movie is an odd two-hander.  There’s Butler’s Elvis, full of charisma and energy, effectively bringing The King back before our very eyes.  Then there’s Hanks’ Parker, waddling around in a fat suit in a performance that is funny but is distracting.  (I found myself patiently waiting for Butler to steal the spotlight away from him.)  I have no doubt that Hanks put a lot of work into his performance.  He’s a pro’s-pro, a great actor who gives solid performances in nearly every movie he’s in.  Even still, if I had a choice, I’d choose the rock-and-roll singer over the clown seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

Very little time is left for the other people in Elvis’ life, even his first wife, Pricilla.  Elvis is a good movie that features a star-making performance from Butler, amazing direction from Luhrmann and a weird clown-act from Hanks.  It could have been a great one, though.  Recommended.

Elvis begins at the end, with an elderly and corpulent Colonel Thomas Parker collapsing in his Las Vegas office in 1997.  A flashy ambulance ride later and Parker lies comatose in his hospital bed.  In his mind he imagines himself wandering through an empty casino, dressed in a patient’s gown and pulling his IV stand with him.  “There are some who’d make me out to be the villain of this here story,” Parker’s voice-over intones.  He never refutes the common belief that he was responsible for his client’s untimely demise.  Instead, he proudly states that he gave the world Elvis Presley.  Like all charlatans, he knows that it’s better to misdirect truth-seekers with a big shiny object.

In one of the stranger movie segues I’ve seen, the action shifts back in time, to when Elvis was an impoverished child living in a mixed neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee.  In one of many tour de force scenes in the movie, Elvis is shown obtaining a simultaneous baptism in rhythm and blues and Baptist revival singing on the same afternoon.  This obviously didn’t actually happen to Elvis in real-life, but that’s not the point.  In just a few minutes, Luhrmann shows how both experiences influenced Elvis from an early age.  The raw sexuality of the blues and the unbridled ecstasy of a church service were a powerful combination, one that Elvis sought to recreate whenever he was on stage.

The movie then jumps ahead to 1954, when Elvis was making a name for himself with his recordings for Sun Records and appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show.  From here on out, the movie follows the traditional pattern of a biopic.  It touches on many, though not all of the key events in his life, which most people who know Elvis would already be familiar with (see below).  Some events that I was certain would be included were never mentioned (see below).  Admittedly, Luhrmann can’t include everything that happened to Elvis in a single movie.  If he did, he would far exceed this movie’s 2:30 runtime, and we’d either be anticipating a sequel or even a trilogy.  (I wished they would have gone with a two-movie approach.)  Instead, Luhrmann uses the biopic structure of the movie to address two distinct objectives, both of which I suspect were strongly suggested by Elvis’ estate.  I have no evidence of this, other than my impression that the movie was made in part to fulfill a specific agenda.

The first objective is that the movie needed to depict Elvis as an incredibly dynamic and exciting performer, both in his early days and later in his Las Vegas years.  The movie easily surpassed my expectations here, with Austin Butler channeling Elvis’ spirit and Luhrmann’s dazzling camera capturing the raucous energy he generated in every performance.  Every one of Butler’s performances is a show-stopper, from his red-hot rendition of “Baby, Let’s Play House” on the Louisiana Hayride radio show to his big-and-brassy take on “That’s All Right” for his concerts at The International Hotel.  Being completely honest, I would still recommend the movie if it was just ninety minutes of Butler recreating the magic.  He is simply that good, and all of his performances as Elvis are excellent.

The other objective of Elvis is to burnish the image of its subject.  For many years, critics and commentators have described Elvis as someone who appropriated Black music for his own benefit and never gave back to the community he stole from.  I became familiar with this line of criticism when I first heard Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, and I understand the anger members of the African American community feel towards Elvis.  I don’t want to litigate that argument here, and would refer you to the documentary The King (2017) for an excellent dissection of Elvis’ career and cultural impact.  Instead, I want to focus on how the movie addresses these criticisms somewhat directly.

As I mentioned above, the movie shows Elvis at an early age becoming enraptured by the blues when he sees Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) singing “That’s All Right, Mama.”  Later, when Elvis performs his version (“That’s All Right”) on stage in Las Vegas, the movie uses a thrice-split screen to show how that early influence carried through to Young Elvis performing the song at Sun Studios, as well as in his post 1968 concerts.  It’s a bit of bravura filmmaking on Luhrmann’s part, a thrilling visual construction that provides historical perspective that is direct without being heavy-handed.

The movie also makes a point of depicting Elvis’ respect and appreciation for African American culture by way of an amazing set piece that takes place on Beale Street.  After a hard-day’s work, he tours the street, taking in the latest fashions and sounds of music emanating from the recording studios.  The scene comes off as Elvis wandering through a typically overstimulating Baz Luhrmann musical, but I liked it.  As he rubbernecks, he hears Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) singing “Hound Dog” from one building, greets BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in another, and the two of them catch Little Richard (Alton Mason) singing “Tutti Frutti.”  Taken at face value, the scene is amazing, an incredibly clever visual collage of Elvis’ influences.  This scene, as well as the others I described above, are nice, well-meaning gestures, one that fans of Elvis will point to as evidence that he was not a racist.  However, I doubt any people who viewed Elvis as a racist or cultural appropriator before this movie was released would change their minds because of these overtures.

If Elvis had just focused on the life and times of Elvis Presley, the movie would have been a good biopic.  For some reason, the filmmakers decided that Parker should tell the story.  I’m guessing they did this out of necessity, a way to make what the audience would already be familiar with fresh.  This gambit works, but not entirely.  

To paraphrase Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane, Parker was with Elvis before the beginning and after the end.  Parker is shown as the driving force behind Elvis’ career, from his beginnings as a traveling stage performer in the deep south until his death.  I knew a few things about him before seeing this movie, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious to know more about him.  How did he initially gain control of Elvis’ career and maintain control over it for twenty-some years?  How did he convince Elvis to go along with every one of his career decisions, including those that Elvis must have suspected could be damaging?  For example, why did Elvis make twenty-seven cookie-cutter movies over an eight year span?  

According to the movie, Parker was a charming, smooth-talking promoter, someone who respected Elvis’ ability to make money without caring a whip for his client’s artistry.  Parker did prey on Elvis’ insecurities and paranoia when convincing him to not travel outside the country, but that is the only instance of direct manipulation I noted.  (Elvis’ insecurities and paranoia being the direct result of the copious amount of drugs he was doing at the time.)  Parker was manipulative, but the movie never makes a case that Parker’s actions rose to the level of a svengali.  Instead, it shows him and Elvis as being in cahoots, where the shared objective was making a lot of money via “snow jobs”.  (Snow jobs are acts designed to separate people from their money.)

The relationship between Elvis and Parker is front-and-center in the movie but is never seriously explored.  Parker wasn’t actually a father-figure to Elvis, since Vernon was still alive.  Did Elvis just not want to make hard decisions?  Was his deference to authority figures something he learned as a child and stayed with him as an adult?  Why did Elvis acquiesce so often to Parker’s decisions?  I was looking for the movie to provide some level of insight on these questions, but it ultimately had none to give.  By the end of the movie, I definitely knew more about Parker than I did before, and that is the problem at the root of Elvis.

As constructed, Elvis and Parker share the spotlight, and the on-screen pairing of the two is a strange one.  On the one hand, there’s Elvis: singer, performer and entertainer.  As I mentioned before, Austin Butler brings him to life with so much electricity that the movie sags when he’s not performing.  When he’s not performing, Butler does a nice job with his dramatic material.  ON the other hand is Hanks’ Parker, portrayed as a friendly, overweight charlatan with an indescribable accent.  I was amused by Hanks’ performance throughout the movie, even though it only further convinced me that he should avoid roles requiring accents.  (I don’t feel he’s ever done an accent convincingly.)  As I mentioned above, I learned a lot about Parker from this movie.  However, I would have been happier if I had learned a little about Parker and spent more time with Butler’s Elvis.

In horror movie terms, Elvis is a two-headed monster, where Elvis and Parker continually try to take the lead from each other.  Given how the movie neatly splits its focus between the two, it should have been titled Elvis and the Colonel or Elvis and Me.  The movie reminded me of My Week with Marilyn, where the “my” part of the equation was nowhere as interesting as, well, you know.  By the time the credits rolled I understood Parker’s fate and how it related to the early sequence of him wandering a casino.  I didn’t learn anything new about Elvis, however, or get a new perspective on him.

Even though I really enjoyed Elvis, it’s the equivalent of watching a movie about The Beatles where half of its time is devoted to their manager, Brian Epstein.  Or a movie about The Rolling Stones that divides its attention between one of the greatest rock-and-roll bands of all time and their managers, Andrew Loog Oldham and Allen Klein.  It’s not that I don’t want to learn anything about managers, it’s just that I’d prefer to spend my time with the band, thanks.  Put another way, think of how Bohemian Rhapsody would have been if it had been narrated by Mike Meyers’ cartoonish label executive throughout.  (I liked the movie and Malik’s performance, by the way.)

Parker certainly was an important figure in Elvis’ life, but he definitely wasn’t not the only one.  The movie’s exclusive focus on Parker means that there is no time leftover for any of the other people in Elvis’ life.  For example, the movie introduces each member of the Memphis Mafia by name in a splashy sequence.  However, we never learn anything about those people from that point on.  Jerry Schilling (Luke Bracey), talent manager is shown trying to convince Elvis to go out of the country for shows that will bring in big money, but we don’t learn anything more about him, either.

To my surprise, the characterization of Pricilla (Olivia DeJonge) was also superficial.  Aside from her initial scenes with Elvis while they are both living in Germany, she’s mainly depicted in wife-mode.  At first, she’s his adoring wife and mother of his daughter.  Later, she’s his angry wife, upset because he never comes home to spend time with his family.  While I’m sure both of those portrayals were accurate, I was expecting the movie to give her a little more of the spotlight than that.  (She only  managed Elvis’ estate for roughly fourteen years.  Lisa Marie Pressley took control when she turned 25 in 1993.)

Aside from providing a different perspective on Elvis, the movie also positions Parker as the story’s antagonist.  Elvis makes its intentions clear at the outset, when Parker addresses how some people view him as the villain in Elvis’ life.  The movie never really makes its case for this argument, though.  Aside from two instances where Elvis and Parker did not agree (his treatment on the Steve Allen Show, the content of the NBC special which became his Comeback Special), he went along with everything else Parker recommended.  Why Elvis only said “no” to Parker twice is a much more topic than whether Parker killed his golden goose.  From a business standpoint, the movie makes a solid case that every financial success Elvis had was due to Parker (the movie provides many examples here).

The only obvious bit of villainy on Parker’s behalf is after Elvis collapses on his way to the stage and is revived by dunking his face in a bowl of ice water.  Parker doesn’t express any concern for his client’s well-being.  Instead, he instructs Dr. Nick to pump Elvis with enough drugs so that he could perform.  It’s a heartless reaction on Parker’s behalf for sure, one that appears to confirm the notion that Parker never really cared about Elvis and only saw him as a moneymaker.  However, aside from this “get him on stage” moment, Parker is shown as being very effective at his job, which is to promote his client and get him as many opportunities to make money as possible.  It’s not his fault that Elvis spent wildly and his father couldn’t reign him in.  For the majority of the movie, Parker clearly is a benefit to Elvis’ career and earnings.  That the two of them disagreed twice and that Elvis kept a heavy touring schedule at the end of his career doesn’t make Parker out to be a villain any more than Elvis’ rampant drug abuse.  There are plenty of people to blame for Elvis’ early death, including Elvis himself.  The movie should have taken the time to explore that more.  (Dr. Nick gets off pretty well in this movie.)

There were several times where I thought Luhrmann took a bit too much poetic license with Elvis’ life.  His explanation that Elvis had to join the Army because he had to escape being arrested and put in jail over his last concert.  This is obviously a fabrication because Elvis had already been drafted and had been given deferments to finish King Creole.  The idea that Parker had kept a notebook around with unpaid expenses just in case he was ever fired was also hilarious.  Also was the idea that Parker spent $8 million of his share of the money when he could have gotten reimbursed like any other business expense.  I also didn’t believe that Elvis would have given up on going overseas because he was concerned about facing litigation from Parker.  (No matter what Elvis’ financial situation was at the time, I’m pretty sure he could still afford lawyers.)

I was surprised by the dismissive tone the movie took towards his post-Army acting career.  Granted, he made a lot of mediocre-to-bad movies during that time, but a few (Blue Hawaii, Viva Las Vegas, Kid Galahad) are good.  The estate apparently has no problem with accepting these criticisms.

I’ve mentioned and complimented Luhrmann throughout this movie. What I haven’t said is that this is the first one of his films I’ve seen more than a few minutes of. I’m not generally a fan of musicals, and his flashy style has not appealed to me. (The commercials for Moulin Rouge! had me convinced that I would never appreciate his filmmaking style.) Based on this movie, I may need to give his previous films a look. One last compliment Is that his handling of the movie’s closing number, Elvis singing “Unchained Melody”, is a killer. See if you can spot where he switches from Butler to the actual Elvis.

One last thing: how did Kodi Smit-McPhee manage to get two roles where he essentially plays a fake cowboy?  Or did he fly directly from the set of The Power of the Dog to this movie?

Errata

Key Moments in Elvis’ Life Included in the Film:

  • Parker becomes Elvis’ manager
  • Parker buys out Elvis’ contract with Sun Records in favor of RCA
  • Elvis’ appearance on the Steve Allen Show, decked out in a tuxedo and singing to an actual hound dog
  • Politicians using Elvis’ growing popularity to push their racist agenda
  • How incredible 1956 was for Elvis (see here)
  • Elvis joins the Army
  • Elvis meets Pricilla while stationed in Germany
  • The death of Elvis’ mother
  • The eight years Elvis spent making mostly bad movies in Hollywood
  • Elvis and his family relocate to Graceland
  • Elvis married Pricilla
  • The birth of Elvis and Pricilla’s daughter Lisa Marie
  • Elvis’ Comeback Special
  • Elvis in residence at The International Hotel in Las Vegas
  • Pricilla divorces Elvis
  • Elvis’ growing drug abuse and declining physical health
  • Elvis’s death at 42

Key Moments not included in the film:

  • His very successful appearances on the Milton Berle Show
  • His appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show
  • The reworking of Hound Dog
  • His recording of Heartbreak Hotel for RCA
  • His work on his better movies, including King Creole and Jailhouse Rock
  • His study of Karate
  • His meeting with Nixon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s