OK, I admit it – I like music biopics. Yes, the current boogeyman for many cinephiles is a flawed genre with many pros and cons. But I still adore seeing Ray Charles belt out Night Time Is The Right Time, or the duets in Walk the Line (2005). Yes, I even like that silly Queen biopic, whilst gladly making fun of the moment where Brian May tells the band how he came up with the beat for We Will Rock You while he was on the toilet, or whatever the hell was going on in that scene. But: “I can’t believe they’re still doing these movies after they were parodied so well in Walk Hard,” I can hear you saying. And yes, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) was a gut-busting romp that perfectly satirized the music biopic formula (“Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he plays!” One observer hilariously asserts).
However, just because we know the beats doesn’t mean it isn’t still entertaining. They are admittedly flawed pieces of revisionist history that do more to lionize their subjects rather than truly examine them, and it was only a matter of time before Elvis Presley received such glorified treatment. For the Memphis-based provacotor, eventually dubbed “The King of Rock n’ Roll,” has a complex legacy worth retelling, even if we may never agree on the lens that perfectly captures that history.
But this isn’t just a story about Elvis Presley, as played by Austin Butler, but also a referendum on the King’s longtime manager: “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). We first meet Parker as he traverses the deep south while organizing a traveling circus. He “discovers” Elvis on the radio, and immediately uses his carny powers to calculate that White Kid + Black culture influenced rhythm & blues sound + crooning = $$$$$$. Make no mistake, the controversial Parker is positioned as the movie’s villain, and Hanks’ portrayal does the late manager no favors. The real Parker had a slightly strange southern accent, but Hanks has him sounding like a Lord of the Rings villain that’s also about to steal Christmas.
Once the talented, but unsure of himself, Elvis is in Parker’s grasp, the latter turns the former into a pop megastar, topping the charts while making his adoring fans swoon – and his critics rush to censor him. Director Baz Luhrmann gets a lot of mileage out of Elvis’ pelvic thrusts, and the visceral/animalistic reactions it draws from fans who see him for the first time. When the women holler at Presley, their screams aren’t controlled so much as they escape. As Elvis’ fame grows, the remaining story is telegraphed for us by way of previous biopics – there’s the marriage that does nothing to change the artist’s promiscuous ways, a sprinkling of real-world political events that briefly capture the artist’s attention, murmurs that the artist is now a has-been, an opportunity for a comeback, and an untimely death.
The casting is fantastic, starting with Butler – a very worthy Elvis. It takes awhile for him to fully nail Elvis’ iconic deep voice, but it eventually comes through, the first time being randomly in casual conversation of all places. His mannerisms and magnetic energy help nail Elvis’ suave swagger, even if no one could ever wholly embody that specific energy. I’m still not sure what Hanks is doing with that Bond villain accent, but he does sink into the role and is arresting every time Colonel Parker is on screen. Olivia DeJonge’s first appearance as Priscilla is an engaging scene that showcases a bit of her personality. But as the movie goes along, she has less dialogue, less screentime, and… just less. The movie doesn’t really know what to do with her.
What’s in the movie’s favor, as it follows a very familiar template, is a sense of style. Baz Luhrmann, perhaps best known for 2013’s The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge! (We don’t talk about Australia), is a glitzy showman, for better or worse. Elvis, as a result, feels like a fever dream. The movie hardly even stops to have scenes, causing the 159 minute movie to come across like one long montage, as Presley’s fame, performances, family life, and internal struggles all washes over us in a barrage of visual artillery. On several occasions, it appears Butler was forced into iconic garbs from Elvis’ wardrobe, only for the outfit to appear in literally a single frame as the movie speed rushes through huge chunks of the singer’s life. I’d be surprised if there’s even an establishing shot in the entire movie. The benefit is the movie is always visually appealing, even if it can become exhausting for some viewers.
That visual flair is leveraged not just to compensate for the formulaic storytelling, but distract from the movie’s surface level depiction of complex topics. But Elvis is a tricky movie – it seems to be at a crossroads, trying to decide how much consciousness they should give their title character. It’s no secret that many people consider Elvis to be a cultural vulture, taking elements of black culture to influence his own music career, without providing any benefit to the community he borrowed those elements from. While it’s true that Elvis had an array of influences, including Country and Crooning, his ties to the rhythm and blues he experienced in Black churches in Mississippi is forever a part of his legacy. Cue the movie whipping up a couple of scenes, as a young Presley has a full-on religious experience in the church.
But then the film tries to reconcile the star’s complicated history, by showcasing Elvis proximity to black artists, including B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and gospel-singing Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola). Some of these interactions did happen (mostly) as their depicted, and others are truncated and simplified to accommodate the silver screen. Nonetheless, the movie is hesitant to blame Elvis for any cultural appropriation, showcasing the relationships he had within the Black community. He’s told at one point not to buy into the government’s threats to arrest him (in retaliation for his lewd performances), as he’s a White guy that makes too much money for more powerful White guys. Elvis is almost surprised by this assertion, a naivete that betrays some of the savviness we’d expect him to possess.
But perhaps Elvis really was that naive; perhaps he isn’t a vulture, but an unsuspecting instrument utilized in a sinister system. Regardless, the history of how Blues Rock evolved into Rock N’ Roll is much more rich and complicated than this movie, or this review, could possibly encapsulate, and is worth any viewer’s time to discover that history any way you can. While Elvis writes his own history, as he segues from one existential crisis to the next, his struggles are chronicled in the narration from Hanks’ Colonel Parker. Elvis’ career starts to see a decline, and Parker informs the audience that’s it’s because the world changed. The Beatles, Civil Rights, Vietnam, you get the picture. Eventually, we see Elvis yearn to become a more conscious performer in the aftermath of multiple assassinations in the political sphere.
The movie comes down to an ideological battle between Elvis and Parker, with the filmmakers assuredly taking Presley’s side. Parker is believed to have low-balled Elvis for years on the late singer’s share of his money, which is pretty much accepted as fact since even Parker’s most ardent defenders confirm this. Just like any carny, he was a con man that used misdirection to fatten his pockets, no matter what lengths he had to go through. At one point in the movie, he even licenses some “I Hate Elvis!” merch, paving the way for companies shamelessly monetizing their own fan backlash.
Parker’s unrelenting capitalistic ideology stood in the way of Elvis’ growth. Thus, Elvis’ social awakening, unlike the musical awakening he discovered in those churches, is but a footnote to the man’s story. His visage can only represent so much, as evidenced by the movie’s coda. Luhrmann is very deliberate on how he thinks Elvis should be remembered, giving us a glimpse of the real person as Presley (now older, heavier, and nearly out of breath) sings Unchained Melody in his final show. But unfortunately, whatever desire Elvis had to be more than a Rock N’ Roll artist could never truly be fulfilled, at least not then. He is the embodiment of the music biopic – a safe, sanitized reminder of an era gone by, with easy to identify heroes and villains. It’s not necessarily a completely truthful retelling, but it’s a melody we all know the words to.