Baz Luhrmann’s biographical rhinestone encrusted romper looks at the life of the iconic Elvis Presley. If you only listen to the dubious yet humanizing testimony of Col Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks, then you’ll see that this Rock and Roll story is not so straightforward. But, go a little deeper and the film makes it clear that it is and will remain on the side of The King.
The pacing of the first hour of the film moves along magnificently considering how much ground there is to cover. The viewer is taken along a multi-city tour where post card style headers show you in which city you’ve arrived. All have a 1950’s America feel where heavy hot rods and drive through eateries have affectionately found each other.
The film captures well his powerful predecessors and peers. Elvis is shown to go to great extents to be around Memphis’ Beale Street where black excellence seems to be at its urban Southern zenith. Elvis’ complicated relationship with black music is very real. The film explores his relationship with renowned musician, BB King (pictured below) to show his struggle with potential success in a burgeoning scene of black musical talent. The film works to inform the audience that he covered some of the great songs that he’s known for i.e. Hound Dog, while still shining a light on his genius for mixing multiple styles of music from each culture.
Maybe it’s for another film to champion how black musicians in the 50’s and 60’s especially were exploited for their musical talent and ignored when it came to writing credit and royalties. Elvis did want to see others rise to their potential and get credit for their talent but he didn’t truly have the power to change racial injustice or the status quo of his time. But, he was capable of being real and reminding others that he sees the darkness in the world too, just as when he writes and performs the song “If I Can Dream”.
Austin Butler is absolutely sensational. He gives us the heart throb destined for success whose moves seem to make girls have feelings they didn’t know they had. He then has to morph quickly into the family man who can’t see his own nose-diving career and reaches for others to help him be creative and relevant once again like we saw in the 1965 comeback special.
The film shows us that Col Tom Parker worked to stifle Elvis’ creative control and output i.e. the comeback special would have been a hokey Christmas cash-grab had Elvis not then duped his own manager so he could finally make something he was proud had his name on it.
The hallucinogenic casino scenes with Col Tom Parker in his hospital gown feel like a scary fun-house in which you don’t want to get trapped à la the nightmare sequence in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. These doped up trips to the craps table ultimately feel like a hackneyed way of showing us that the colonel wanted to control the dice in the “partnership” as he gambled away a vast amount of the Elvis fortune.
It’s a good movie but the film is kept to the confines of being so pro-Elvis that it loses its chance to highlight the more authentic side of this iconic showman. The film is more about how Colonel Tom Parker ultimately broke him and kept him financially broke as well. The film doesn’t explore how his own excesses also are valid for understanding why he became a prisoner of financial ruin.
There are ways of showing how Elvis was more of a flawed individual without being cruel or degrading. Elvis was known for being very generous. He believed that the ultimate luxury was to own a Cadillac and he wanted everyone he knew to experience this too. The 2002 film 200 Cadillacs dives deeper into how Elvis was known to buy Cadillacs for many of his friends and even strangers. This over-spending could have been used to highlight some ambiguity in the King’s story while allowing for a more realistic human interpretation to come through. Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis may have steered away from the excesses and at times frivolous gift-giving to focus more on Colonel Tom Parker’s abuse and how it led to Elvis’ downfall but, in so doing, you get a film that feels heavy handed with the blame and is missing an understanding of the real person who was, for lack of a better way of putting it, “caught in a trap and couldn’t get out”.