- Baz Luhrmann
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 39 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
When I first learned that Baz Luhrmann would be directing the Elvis Presley biopic, I knew the film would be flamboyant—look what he did with Romeo and Juliette and Moulin Rouge. And so it is, right from the start with the studio logos and film title surrounded by glittering jewels and “ELVIS” displayed in bright red letters framed by sparkling gold. Has there ever been a film providing so much eye candy? But also, after the Colonel starts his defensive narration, we also see that the director and his two co-screenwriters, Sam Bromell and Jeremy Domer, take seriously the racial setting in which Presley was raised and how he interacted with it.
One might be led by Colonel Parker, played by a Tom Hanks who totally disappears into the rotund figure of the Colonel, into thinking this was going to be a film about the promoter. He boastfully declares, “I am the legendary Col. Thomas Parker. I am the man who gave the world Elvis Presley.” But this is immediately followed by, “There are some who’d make me out to be the villain of this here story.” Both statements are amply born out by what follows, beginning with a sequence in a carnival setting, one that is no doubt made up but which nevertheless conveys truth–.
In his native Netherlands Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, his given name before he changed it in America to Tom Parker, as a boy did work as a carnival barker and also worked in US carnivals before moving into the position of manager in the music business. The Colonel was managing the career of rockabilly Hank Snow when he learned about a young singer named Elvis Presley who was wowing audiences on the radio broadcasts of Louisiana Hayride and in Memphis. We see several scenes of the Colonel lurking on the sidelines as Elvis, his hips and legs gyrating to the beat of his music as the crowd, especially its young women, cheer him on.
Parker, looking like an air-born demon, propositions the singer high atop a Ferris wheel. In return for his exclusive signing, the huckster promises Presley and his parents to devote all of his attention to the singer. (The parents have to sign because their son is still a minor.) Thus, Parker is depicted throughout the film as a dark version of P.T. Barnum, playing the suckers for all he can extract—and one of those suckers was Elvis himself, who agreed that Parker would take from 25 to 50% of his income, instead of the conventional 10 to 15%.
Interspersed in this section are flashbacks to Elvis’s boyhood Mississippi days when his poor family lived in a shotgun house in a neighborhood with Blacks as their neighbors. The boy is shown playing with Black friends and running back and forth between a juke joint and a revival tent, drawn to the music in both of them as he peers through openings in the walls. Indeed, in the revival service he is caught up in the ecstatic spirit of the worshipers. In a telling triptych we see Elvis singing between two Black performers, affirming the influence on him of blues and gospel songs. We first hear the singer for whom Leiber & Stoller wrote their hit song “Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), and then we hear Presley sing it, the words changed somewhat. A singer whom Presley much admired, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) also performs.
Some upset musicians have accused Presley as being another of those white singers who stole Black music—at a time when DJs and national record labels closed their doors to Black performers, insisting that white artists perform music created by Blacks. However, this film shows a Presley who genuinely loved the racial music and got along well with African Americans. His long-time friendship with Memphis R&B singer B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is on prominent display.
Thanks to the Colonel’s dealings and the singer’s great talent, Presley quickly becomes a national success, at least with the younger generation, girls in particular swooning as they fixate on his gyrations. The latter so offends adults that protests are lodged against the singer, some calling him a threat to the morals of the youth. But Presley is so popular with the younger set that the Colonel shrewdly negotiates deals with companies to flood the market with Elvis Presley products—78 different kinds in all, from charm bracelets and a board game to record players. The canny Colonel plays both sides of the Presley divide by licensing “I Hate Elvis” buttons, a delightfully funny touch.
During this period Elvis tells his friend B.B. King ,”Some people wanted to put me in jail ’cause of the way I was moving.” King replies, “They might put me in jail for walkin’ across the street, but you are a famous white boy. Too many people are making too much money to put you in jail.”
Worried about the outcry against his client, the Colonel shows him some sober-looking stage costumes (black tail coats!) and orders him to stop moving his body so seductively, the singer answering, “If I can’t move, I can’t sing.” He appears on Steve Allen’s national show, his body motions subdued, the rock music-hating comedian staging Elvis singing “Hound Dog” to a large dog (looking like the one on RCA’s records). Thus he reluctantly does tone down his act—also a Florida judge had ordered him to stop moving his body so suggestively!–, and then it is his fans who complain, “We want the old Elvis back.” In one funny scene Elvis ends his song with one hand raised in the air as he wiggles just his little finger in mockery of the judge’s order.
The movie suggests that Elvis’s Army draft notification was due to the machinations of the Colonel in order to remove his charge from public scrutiny for a while, and also because of Presley’s push back to his handling. We do know that Parker did talk with his star, convincing him to sign up instead of being drafted, as well as making sure that Presley would not get celebrity treatment while in the service but serve as a regular G.I. The film treats this portion of his life sparely, showing just his falling in love with Priscilla Beaulieu (Olivia DeJonge). Just 14 at the time, she would become Mrs. Presley 7 ½ years later.
Throughout the film we also see Presley’s close bond with his parents Vernon and Gladys (respectively Richard Roxburgh and (Helen Thomson ). When he is subjected to criticism by segregationists and religious morality police, she encourages her son: “The way you sing is God-given, so there can’t be nothin’ wrong with it.” His gift of the pink Cadillac that he had promised his mother and conducting his parents to the newly purchased Graceland reveal his deep attachment to them. While he is in the Army his mother and he keep in close touch through phone calls. Her death from hepatitis and the effects of her alcoholism hits him hard. As I recall, his sorrow is emphasized after she dies by the singing on the soundtrack the spiritual “Motherless Child”!
Elvis is also deeply affected by the traumatic events of the Sixties, including the murders of the two Kennedy brothers. And even though he, unlike such celebrities as Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett, did not take part in Civil Rights demonstrations, he was shaken by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commenting on the latter, Parker says, “A tragedy, but it has nothing to do with us.” Contradicting him, Presley says, “It has everything to do with us!” I expected to hear on the soundtrack his 1969 hit “In the Ghetto,” one of my favorite Presley recordings, but this does not come until the end of the film when the credits start to roll. Shots of segregationist speakers, such as the senator from Presley’s home state, Sen. James Eastland (Nicholas Bell ) ranting beside a Confederate flag stand in stark contrast to the singer’s friendship with B.B. King and his love for Black music.
The film deals with Presley’s successful Hollywood movie career in the traditional method by showing the films’ posters in succession, beginning with the 1956 Love Me Tender—he made so many (31 I was surprised to learn!) that only a few are shown. He wanted badly to star with Barbara Streisand in the remake of A Star is Born, but because the Colonel wanted double the proffered fee for Presley, the role went to Kris Kristofferson instead.
There came a time in the latter Sixties when Elvis’s popularity began to fade. Fed up with the Colonel’s making him tame with his act, the film shows Elvis meeting with old friend Jerry Schilling (Luke Bracey) and director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) to stage a “come-back” performance on television. I don’t know whether he really met with them at the base of the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign overlooking Los Angeles and Griffith Observatory, but it is a nice symbolic touch, because at that time the condition of the sign, rusted and appearing to be in danger of collapsing, paralleled that of the singer’s career. The Colonel envisioned the upcoming program as a traditional, bland Christmas show with Elvis wearing a Christmas sweater. Steve Binder turned it into a lavishly staged review of Presley’s hit songs (including a Gospel song), the singer clad in a leather motor cycle suit. The reaction of the Colonel and the network suits, when they watch from the control room, is hilarious, the network reps intending to sue. “He’s not even wearing the sweater!” one of them exclaims. They quickly change their minds when the show proves to be a smash hit with the public.
The last section of the film deals with the singer’s second stint at a Las Vegas casino/hotel (his earlier appearances were a bust because at that time it’s older clients were not rock and roll fans). We again see the Colonels’ mendacious duplicity on display. While the singer is on stage in his famous white jump suit wowing the audience, in one scene the Colonel is conducting a secret deal with the hotel owner that will enrich himself as much as his client. The events that transpire over the next few years detail the worsening relationship that leads to Presley firing his manager—though in real life it took place backstage and not in front of the audience. This, of course, did not last, the Colonel continuing to manage the singer until the very end, though their close relationship ceased.
Presley’s eventual death was brought on by overwork and his addiction to pills—a band member years earlier had started him on them because they brought relaxation from stress. (Elvis was just 42 years old, four years younger than his mother at her death.) The Colonel claims that he was not to blame for the star’s death although he drove Presley relentlessly to fill a crushing load of concerts)—the Colonel kept running through his money because of his gambling debts. Instead, he would have us believe that it was love that killed him—the love of his fans who drove him to exhaustion by their demands on his tours.
This is a film that frequently goes overboard to lionize an American icon. And yet, when you look at Presley’s short life and love for garish costumes and home furnishings, the ornate style of the film matches that of its subject. The costumes and sets are magnificent—loved the recreation of Memphis’s Beale Street, as well as the extravagant settings for his shows. All of the cast members are superb, with the two major stars especially throwing themselves into their roles. Tom Hanks, fitted with a fat suit and his face altered by prosthetics is scarcely recognizable. And Austin Butler manages to look enough like Presley, and to even sound like him, the star, urged on by the director, singing the earlier songs. For the later ones, when Presley’s voice had become affected by age and the myriad of pills, Butler’s voice is blended with Presley’s. I suspect the soundtrack album will itself be a hit because it includes not only Presley’s songs but some by such artists as Doja Cat, Kacey Musgraves, and Eminem, who sample Presley recordings. I was especially impressed by rapper Nardo Wick’s “Product of the Ghetto,” heard at the end of the film, in which he expands upon the lyrics sung by Presley. (See the combined lyrics by clicking on the title.) All in all there are 36 selections on the soundtrack*, making this film as listenable as it is watchable.
I am glad the studio was able to obtain a PG-13 rating so that it will be more acceptable for youth groups to see and discuss the film. Elvis Presley had plenty of flaws, but not only his great voice, but his struggle against being “conformed” by the Colonel and his detractors, as well as his sympathy for and friendship with African Americans, make him a sympathetic character. His physical decline and death are tragic, and yet his legacy of beautiful music performed with tremendous energy will live on. This film is such a wonderful tribute to an American icon and his troubled era that you should see as soon as possible. It is sure to be on my Top Ten Film list for this year!
*You can find the list and even sample the songs at All The Songs On The 2022 ‘Elvis’ Movie Soundtrack (elitedaily.com)
This review will be in the July issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.