Ignore the title. All this pomp and circumstance ain’t about Elvis. Elvis is just what happens in the movie. This is a story about Colenel Tom Parker. A promoter who cut his teeth at the circus and treated his associated homespun country acts as just another sideshow. The only approach that makes sense for profiling such an eccentric carnival barker is Baz Luhrmann’s absurdist sense for filmmaking. It is a worthy movie, not of the King of Rock, but of his oddball manager and the often contradictory, murky life he led. At the center of such a character is a mystery: who is Colonel Tom Parker? None of the nouns in his name are true (born: Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk); these adopted synonyms say more about his need to be loved than who he was. The Dutchman arrived on American shores without any skill or aptitude, cloaked by a shadowy past that could have provided one of several rumored reasons for him to flee. The truest thing about Colonel Tom Parker is that what he says is another illusion, a show at play with public perception and the understanding of self which he rigidly cultivated.
Because he was a stranger to the music industry, and was dealing with some of the rawest talent of the last century, it didn’t matter to Tom Parker that Elvis was an innovative mixture of rhythm and blues and gospel spiritual that crossed over racial lines and brought spirited Black dance to white, twangy, country hybrid music. It mattered that Elvis shook his hips the right way, had a flair for out-there fashion, and that he sold an experience to an audience. To truly make an Elvis movie, anyway, the kind of Elvis movie that people want to watch, what you’re really talking about is corporate branding and the greatest model of an “industry plant” that pointed to the actual future of pop music and how talent would be developed. More broadly than being about Tom Parker, or not exactly about Elvis, the film catalogues a chapter in the history of American music with requisite Luhrmannian verve.
It is a film with Elvis music in it. It has Austin Butler’s interpretation of Elvis, blended with vocals from the actual artist. This approach provides an energetic half-step between energizing the central performance and instilling their own voice into the character and possibly missing the mark by over or undershooting exactly the tenor of how these songs are actually sung. There is little that is uncanny in Butler’s performance. Perhaps, as a result of not being an Elvis super-fan, I’d even rather watch Butler. There is the whole cottage industry around Elvis impersonators. Earlier this summer, I was out at a lake and someone rented a raft and hired an Elvis impersonator to sing on it all evening. It’s funny where Elvis fever can pop up. Sometimes, it gets to you randomly on a lake in the middle of nowhere. But if someone successfully embodies the performative spirit of the thing, that is better than the real thing, which rings about as staged as any Vegas-centric act: just another attraction to see. That the book is wide open on replicating the spirit of Elvis means it’s also a superb part to play in a movie. Austin Butler is the best Elvis we have ever had. He exudes easily earned sexuality and the kind of aloofness befitting his character. He doesn’t even have to really plump himself up at the end and look swollen with drugs and excess, his acting implies more than a fat suit or gained weight would do.
Then, how odd that Elvis, a secondary character in the movie called Elvis, is the primary performer. Tom Hanks takes on the role of Colonel Tom Parker. It is too conflicted of a character for Hanks, who, quite contrary to Butler’s approach, plays a simple caricature of the figure: too neatly rounded and obscure, not quite believably a person that existed, a cartoon by which the film is narrated. Because so much of the film revolves around Hanks’ Parker, it sometimes flatlines when it needs a really sturdy foundation to uphold the 2.5 hour runtime. It’s a lot of movie, even for Baz Luhrmann, you’ll leave the theater thinking it didn’t need some of the fat. But it is a fairly complete picture of the moments that significantly surrounded the relationship between Elvis and his kooky manager. The other issue the film deals with is, what does it mean? After all the time spent, we have reflected some reality about two show business obsessives, who forewent having properly fulfilling personal lives because the adoration of the audience was their only real love.
Doesn’t the work fit nicely in Baz’s catalogue? Over thirty years you can still count his movies on two hands. He has taken on epic stories and always added new value: the stylized celebration of ballroom dance in his debut, Strictly Ballroom (1992); A modernized version of the most popular love story ever told in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996); a stunning work of Parasian populism in the vivid musical, Moulin Rouge (2001); his ode to his home country, Australia (2008)… happened (maybe the single outlier) and it’s happening again, expanded for television, weird! Then he took on the Great American Novel in his hyper-reinvented The Great Gatsby (2013), better than you think it is, even if you have seen and considered it. Then we reach Elvis, the most populist story of American rock stardom, a film that makes a world of sense in such a short, concentrated filmography. These movies are few and far between, yet the characteristic style of the work is well known. You know Luhrmann’s calling card. It is significant and enlivened by staying close to the poetic movement that can really make a musical inflected movie shake its figurative hips.
Now, what was left out? Lots of drugs for Elvis. Elvis glosses over the addictions which would ultimately end the star’s life. Sure, they’re accounted for, as blips in the story and bumps on the road, but a more holistic approach would better show why drugs are used in these quantities and with such reckless fervor. As Dewey Cox of Walk Hard (2007) so elegantly puts it mid-coitus: “goddamnit, this is a dark fucking period!” Just rock biopic things.
There is also the awkward half-realized backgrounding of famed assassinations. Fine that some are there, the losses of MLK and JFK were cultural turning points that spoke to what kind of country we would become. But then, why include these, if not also Elvis’ radical paranoia, in which he began dressing in black (inspired by Shaft (1971)) and sought to become an undercover agent himself, even putting a police siren on his car? Where this is going is the film does breeze over these oddities (both the cultural moments in which assassinations happened) and conflates them with unrelated things, flattening the meaning of the things it only introduces as flashes of concepts. Elvis needs security and that’s just a reason why Tom Parker wouldn’t let him go overseas (the film does emphasize Parker’s odd reticence to leave the country). The other truth that could be explored there is that Parker just lived in these casinos and the Elvis-Vegas comeback is built on Parker paying off a magnitude of debts of casino and mob money (while also accruing massive, many, many millions of dollars of debt, which is glossed over).
The idea is that Elvis, while sleek as heck in presentation, really misses the depth of its characters and the events of their lives. The tertiary characters embody these faults with the film. Elvis’ wife Priscilla is just a hollow husk of a character Elvis imparts emotion onto. That is usually the weird hang up with the music bio: the essential characters, who are genuinely the biggest supporters, are often cast aside as two-dimensional, to make way for stupidly self-seeking star behavior and manipulative managers. Wouldn’t we like to see the real people in the story? Elvis assumes we wouldn’t. There’s no point to the musician’s crew, the Memphis Mafia, who kind of just float around scenes of the movie. Meanwhile, Tom Parker’s interesting relationship with Marie Mott, is totally left out (and why? — it’s fascinating that he could have had non cartoon relationships).
Especially early on, the film reckons well (without absolving) the uneasy relationship between Elvis and the Black music he pilfered and stole from liberally to create his own image. The film, blessedly, gives so much credit to beautiful musicians in the genres that raised Elvis. This background ultimately amplifies these themes as they play out across the film more comfortably, while still not solving the problem that these Black artists were the real geniuses.
The most meaningful relationship in the film are those between Elvis and Tom Parker and their audiences. Fine. That’s what we’re here for anyway, right, at some reptilian level we really just want the zeitgeist of those old days sold back to it. The film stages incredibly well the musicality of Elvis (possibly not the most curious thing about him) and some of his emotional resonances, but it leaves no check to cash on its large buildups. Baz Luhrmann remains so talented and good at this that you’ll just have to go see the spectacle. It’s as good of a non-action film spectacle as we may get all year. But you might just leave thinking the film was a sexy, fun thing to make, but ultimately has little to say for itself.