Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. One of the most talented, prolific, and dazzling musical icons who ever lived. With his distinctive and melodious voice, funky rhythms, solid cinematic reputation, and a slew of iconic songs, he became a trailblazer that set the world on fire.
Now, thanks to director Baz Luhrmann, the entire story behind the icon is expressed in intricacy with this splashy, two-and-a-half-hour film. How well does the movie portray Elvis and his life as a musician?
Well, the first thing to keep in mind about the film is it’s narrated from the point of view of Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Or, as he called himself, “The Snowman.” Initially, he started as a circus showman who presented lavish shows and hosted talented singers before word of mouth notified him of a young artist whose musical expressions and movements quickly became the talk of the town, though not usually for good reasons. Contrary to what Parker and his peers predicted, the lyrical tenors didn’t come from ‘a colored boy’. Although, they weren’t far off.
This occurred in 1950s Mississippi, and back then, segregation, even among musicians, was still in effect. And Elvis Presley was subject to much vitriol, but mainly with his hip, swaying movements as he performed his songs. They were considered so evocative that the girls attending to watch his performances went wild all over him. As Tom Hopper put it about their reactions:
He was a taste of forbidden fruit. She could have eaten him alive!
This panicked his mother, Gladys Presley, who feared any random female stranger coming by to pick up Elvis and take him away from her. You see, when Elvis was not the snazzy, iconic musician we all know him as, he was a bit of a mama’s boy, always trying to please his mother and set her at ease when things started going south for him.
Soon, Elvis was on his break from one of his concerts and at the local fair when Tom Parker caught up with him. There, he talked to him about his conditions, which he deduced, anyway, and proposed an offer to make him a superstar famous for his musical styles and rich enough to buy whatever his heart desired. Having been raised in poverty before, Elvis took this opportunity immediately, especially since he knew he could’ve used his wealth to help his family, especially his father, Vernon, who had returned a good while ago from jail. Thus, Elvis’ musical career was born.
As a young boy, he and his family had to settle in poor black suburbs after his father forged checks and became incarcerated. Later, he was thoroughly hooked by the Afro-American music the black neighborhoods played to the point where Elvis danced alongside them more than once with his black friends. So, because Elvis performed his music inspired by the black folk music he revered, his musical interpretations drew complaints from segregationists who accused him of stylizing music not meant to be replicated by white people. Elvis was in such deep hot water that his prolonged concerts and the then-risqué movements that made him so infamous attracted police attention, too. So, in a sense, his musical style and insistence on defying the odds and performing his music his way did nothing to stray his family life away from rough terrain.
After that, Elvis agreed to serve two years in the army stationed in Germany to clean up his act and possibly that of Vernon. While stationed there, he met the daughter of a fellow Air Force officer, and the eventual love of his life, named Priscilla.
After serving time in Germany, Elvis returned to America with Priscila as a married man, became a highly paid actor in Hollywood, bought some property in Tennessee, and continued performing his songs at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Elvis purchased the Tennessee property as a settle-down home for his parents, which would later have become Graceland.
However, there’s trouble around the bend for Elvis. He started relying on drugs during his more hectic periods, he got into a questionable habit of kissing his female admirers despite being married to Priscilla, and, as he and the audience would later have caught on, Tom Parker’s influence on his career and life may have been dastardlier than any of us would’ve anticipated.
Let me tell you the funny thing about this movie. Before it focused on Elvis himself, it started with Tom Hopper being rushed to the hospital after he suffered a heart attack while surrounded by condemning reports of his influence on Elvis Presley. Next, he attempted to set the audience, or whoever’s listening to his side of the story, at ease by saying:
I didn’t kill him. I made Elvis Presley.
It called me back a little to Amadeus when Antonio Salieri, while visited by a priest, insisted after his attempted suicide that he killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart after his death out of jealousy. Same thing with Tom Parker and how he boasted about his role in developing a musical icon. It told me right away that this musical biopic would’ve detailed the events in Elvis’ lifestyle through Tom Parker’s eyes.
As the movie progressed, however, Tom Parker revealed himself as a sleazy, money-hungry, counterfeiting conman who turned out to have profited off a young man’s success and failures all through his life. Some people who approached him went as far as to question his identity, saying that Colonel Tom Parker was nothing more than a show name. So, who was he, really?
As soon as the movie started when I saw it in theaters, I was dazzled by all the bright, luscious imagery, although I thought it went just a tad overboard with it. I was a little turned off by the movie’s dedication to displaying some of Elvis’ most famous attributes to his name instead of just showing Elvis’ life before he climbed his way into fame. Of course, given that this movie was narrated and reflected on from his manager’s point of view, it would make sense that he would’ve highlighted some of the things he did for Elvis that made him so famous.
However, the scenes and the transitions themselves were nonetheless stunning to look at. Some of the scenes shot with Elvis on stage seemed as massive and magical as the concerts he performed in real life, and they all showcased his fame through a warts-and-all lens. And throughout the film, but mainly in its first third, the movie was skillful in its scene transitions. For instance, a scene would’ve panned up to a specific position to focus on someone or something, and then it shifted off seamlessly into the next one with the same subject. But it’s not just the matching shots. It was even very creative with how the scenes shifted from one to the next through abstract means. They ranged from newspaper clippings to album covers to simple demonstrations of the location and time of the next scene. And the name of the places or the dates were usually displayed in a stylistic font depending on the situation or the location. They ranged from looking like something you’d see on postcards to resembling something you’d associate with Golden Age films. They felt attractively utilized throughout this movie, and if they didn’t do any favors for Elvis’ story, they at least helped set the stage, so to speak, for the periods and locations within which Elvis’ story progressed.
If you aren’t familiar with him, this movie was directed by famed Australian director Baz Luhrmann. He is famous for directing generally glitzy films that felt more “style over substance,” with movies like Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, and most notably, Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby, both with Leonardo DiCaprio. Luhrmann generally told his stories while honing their flashier elements with visual splendor, even if he did tend to go over the top with them at times. And within the first hour or so of the movie, Elvis felt the same way to me. But then, as Elvis’ personal life was given a more centralized focus and Tom Parker’s treachery became more evident, the film was able to calm down and allow itself to pay close attention to the characters and their dilemmas. It resulted in a movie that gradually allowed our connections with these characters to solidify after a series of visual displays that were not unlike the water shows you’d see at the Bellagio.
But more importantly, while Tom Parker, down to his narrations and shady motivations, served as the movie’s framing device, the film was still brilliant in holding its attention on Elvis’s life through all his ups and downs. As I pointed out, he and his family started in poverty within black neighborhoods in the south before Elvis’ musical extravaganzas propelled him into fame. The money Elvis got out of it then elevated himself and his family out of poverty and into the lap of luxury. However, he was not without his family troubles, like his mother Gladys and her panic attacks over his newfound fame and his trying to take care of his father, Vernon, who was sent to jail for forgery during the Depression. And while Elvis’ style of music did become the bee’s knees among his peers, he nonetheless invited jeers from protestors who expressed outrage over what they considered at the time as too unorthodox or risqué to be classified as real music. His influence by the soul singers he grew up around, like Big Momma Thornton, BB King, and Little Richard, was evident in his music, and the comparisons made his audience and commentators more than queasy, given the Southern backdrop. And, among Elvis’ signature gestures within his performances were swerves he made of his pelvis in front of his groupies, culminating in him earning a particularly unflattering nickname: ‘Elvis the Pelvis.’ Even after he agreed with Tom Parker to rely on him as his manager and arrange all the upcoming concerts and tours for him, Elvis knew when to abide by concert procedures that he did not agree with or when he should just let it all go and strike it out through his music. So, Elvis’ instincts propelled him to perform some moves and establish himself as the type of rebel that would’ve put James Dean to shame.
It reminds me, how are the characters? Well, this is a tricky process since I know that their motivations felt generally varied, but here goes:
Gladys Presley, Elvis’ mother, generally felt like a nervous wreck. She constantly fretted about his son getting hounded by all the attention he received and the controversy she feared he was drowning in. His relationship with his female fans didn’t help, for she feared they would’ve dragged him down and made him one of their own. It seemed like it was a motherly thing for her to feel anxious for the welfare of her son. Unfortunately, her anxiety got the best of her, and she continuously drank in her angst, to the point where even Elvis started discouraging her from drinking so continuously. Some aspects of her character suggested that she was too desperate to keep him to herself, like being suspicious whenever he went with a girl she may not have known. In turn, this made the relationship between her and Elvis quite fascinating because of how much Elvis loved her. But the love these two shared treaded on more uneven terrain once Elvis broke through with his distinctive music and suggestive movements on stage.
Elvis’ father was an unsavvy, generally oblivious, almost gullible man who had slight reservations about Elvis’ progression and reputation as a musician. Yet, most of the time, he still expressed some support for his son’s welfare and future, even if he did all of that with Tom Parker on his side. Sometimes, it made him feel like he was a lousy judge of character, and Elvis called him out on that. So, once he gradually joined his son in the music business with Tom Parker, and not just to show support for him as his father, their relationship and dynamics took on far more exciting angles as the film progressed.
On top of that, Tom Parker nominated Vernon Presley as the chief manager of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which he gladly accepted, knowing it would’ve helped him with his criminal record and financial troubles. However, because of this opportunity and his faith in Tom Parker for his financial aid, he constantly kept forgetting to check up on Elvis as his reliance on drugs and Parker’s roadblocks started getting to him. It showed that whether as a parent or as a human being, he needed to watch what he did to clean his act before he became a pawn in someone else’s game instead.
I must be honest; Priscilla Presley didn’t feel that compelling as a character, though I think it’s mainly because the film didn’t give her enough screen time to leave us with an impression of her personality or tell us what she thought Elvis meant to her. She appeared in his life, returned to America as his wife, and mainly stood by his side. Though, the one time I thought Priscilla was slightly engaging was when she witnessed Elvis kissing his audience groupies and later questioned him about his drug problems. In one of their fights, Priscilla admitted that she didn’t care about Elvis kissing the other women but was rather concerned about his drug problems. That, and there’s a sense that Priscilla felt like she was not happy despite being granted everything Elvis’ newfound wealth could’ve provided her, just like Elvis’ parents were before her. I suppose Priscilla was another demonstration of how money doesn’t always buy you happiness, especially when you’re in the company of a world-famous rockstar like Elvis Presley. But for the most part, she felt a little bit sidelined, even if it allowed the movie to focus on Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis himself.
Speaking of whom, Colonel Tom Parker was one of the shadiest, most unscrupulous characters in the movie. He wanted to substantialize his status as a prolific manager by finding fresh, new talent after getting his break as a circus performer. After crossing paths with Elvis, whose musical talents he was shocked to find out never originated from a black boy like he thought, Parker saw a golden opportunity. With money signs in his eyes, Parker took full advantage of this man’s musical talents and saw to it to promote him to top-ranking status until he was allowed to have whatever he wanted whenever he wasn’t busy with his concert tours. However, his exploitations of Elvis and even his family expressed a greedy side to his character that tried to take hold of any incoming wealth that came flowing directly to him and Elvis’ family. That, and his ways of financially supporting and controlling Elvis and his family showed a more frightening element of show business, the kind that would have left behind lasting scars on the family under his influence. Once that part of his character became apparent as the movie went on, as did Elvis’ more empathetic qualities, Tom Parker’s more humble, ambitious undertakings with Elvis took a nastier turn. What started as something reminiscent of Amadeus slowly started slipping into Lolita waters.
And how about Elvis Presley himself? Well, he showed elements of being a hip and rousing yet undeniably gifted young man who had a lot to offer, even if the way he was allowed to offer it was by more predatory means. Elvis’ background in the American South and his family life portrayed him as a young man with a disputable, controversial reputation. His ways of putting up with all the ensuing backlash while still sticking to his guns as an artist of music were very admirable to watch, as were his connections with his family when things were at their lowest. But what made his journey feel much more tragic was how Tom Parker led Elvis to believe that he could trust him as if he were his long-deceased mother. So, without even knowing it, he was getting screwed over as perpetually as he was rewarded with all the riches the world could’ve repaid him with. Not to mention… relaxing in leisurely pleasure like drugs and wooing other women despite his marriage to Priscilla? Cashing in his wealth on luxurious goods in the name of his family, friends, and sometimes even charity? Once Elvis regained all his fame and fortune, these ways of settling down expressed a colorful collage of conflicting emotions and inner angels and demons swirling about behind the famed singer.
However, there’s one thing that may have held the movie together, and it would be the performances. All the actors and actresses provided the right amount of gravitas to ground the movie’s storytelling approach and lend it some historical substance.
Helen Thomson was exuberant as Elvis’ mother, Gladys, surrounding herself with a motherly aura and breaking through with her moments of anxiety and unease out of concern for her son. In the little time he had in this movie, Richard Roxburgh expressed some conflicted flair through Vernon Presley’s character. Looking at his jailbird background, Roxburgh gave Vernon a stern but somewhat naïve disposition about him. He clued me in that he was still slightly haunted by his past mistakes and wanted to remedy them in any way he thought was possible. That would’ve explained his reliance on Tom Parker once he was named the chief manager. But Roxburgh’s emotional stimulation demonstrated that, in Vernon’s determination to thrive under the business deals bestowed upon him and his family, he didn’t have the savviness necessary to look past Colonel Tom Parker’ deceptions. It showed how success could cloud one’s judgment if they’re not careful about it. And while she didn’t play much of a role in the movie, Olivia DeJonge infused Priscilla Presley with an austere tenderness that grew into an undying love that Priscilla expressed to Elvis through all his triumphs and tribulations.
But who are we kidding? This movie clearly belongs to two actors here.
Let’s first look at Tom Hanks. Some people may dismiss him as the obvious choice in a Hollywood biopic about Elvis Presley. But I was amazed by how naturally Hanks sounded as a Southern-accented man who immigrated to America illegally from the Netherlands. He perfectly portrayed him in all his shady moments, down to his voice, which had just the right amount of underhandedness to match. I was even amazed by how seamlessly Hanks applied himself to his character’s stout image. It turned out that Hanks used a fat suit to give off his appearance as Tom Parker. But when I first saw him in his role, I couldn’t have told whether the stoutness on Hanks was real or digital. But this confirms to me that it may have been neither. The first time I saw Tom Parker on screen and heard him speak, I was only listening to him telling the story of Elvis as only he experienced it or believed he experienced it. But it wasn’t until half an hour into the movie that I listened to the character’s voice and looked at his facial features very closely. When I put two-and-two together, only then did I discover that this was Tom Hanks playing Colonel Tom Parker. I’d say there’s a reason Tom Hanks is such a prolific actor in Hollywood; he’s become a genuinely seamless actor who excelled at many of the roles he played. And I shouldn’t be too surprised, given how flawlessly he portrayed Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks and Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
And then, you have Austin Butler as Elvis Presley. This guy deserves all the awards he can get because, man, is he a hoot! I found Austin Butler’s performance astounding, considering that he started his acting career by starring in plenty of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows throughout the 2010s. In one instance, he even played Charles Watson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But here, Butler rolled along with what was given to him about Elvis’ conflicts, dilemmas, and musical talents and pulled out all the stops as if he knew Elvis Presley inside out. Look at what you see of Elvis in the film: his hairdos, his outfits, his voice, his musical rebel persona, his momma’s boy tendencies, his desperate drug addict episodes, and his vigorous performances as he sang all his classic songs on stage. Butler embraced and expressed every glorious and troubled angle of one of the most highly talented and iconic singers of all time. Butler even did an excellent job portraying Elvis as a young man who took risks and rose to superstardom with some help, whether in his youth or his character’s turn as the famed superstar. In short, what Taron Engleton gave to Elton John in RocketMan, Butler delivered, and then some, to Elvis Presley.
And as you dive through Elvis Presley’s life story in this movie, you’d inevitably be treated to some of Elvis’ breakthrough songs. You name it: Suspicious Minds, Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Viva Las Vegas, Blue Suede Shoes, Heartbreak Hotel… Many of Elvis’ best-known hits are in this movie, hitting home what a legacy Elvis left behind in his glory days as a famous rock star. Sometimes, you can even hear some of the songs performed by some of the black singers Elvis idolized. They ranged from the original ‘Hound Dog’ From Big Mama Thornton to ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ by Sister Rosetta Thorpe and ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Little Richard. Every time the songs were sung, the performers conveyed them with the utmost passion apparent in their voices, especially Austin Butler.
It’s awe-inspiring when you look at Elvis’ background and how different and distinctive his music was from the usual music performed and mastered in the 50s and early 60s. Usually, as my father put it, the primary talented musicians from this time period included Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly. With Elvis Presley, his style of music was a different bolt of lightning compared to what they mastered. While it did generate some controversy, especially from the older generations who expressed a distaste for his music, it did help cement his status as a talented musician whose influence was unparalleled and whose gravitas was unmistakable.
It goes without saying, but the movie modified several elements of Elvis’ life to make it more streamlined and cinematically fulfilling. For one example, while Elvis was arrested in his life, it was not for the Russwood Park concert like the movie depicted. Instead, he was arrested twice: once for going over the speed limit in his Cadillac and again for disorderly conduct battery while trying to autograph for his fans at a gas station. And while Elvis Presley did serve two years of military service in Germany, it was mostly to ease the tensions of how he was a quote ‘corrosive’ image rather than as a remedy for his criminal record.
Some of Elvis’ actions in the limelight were made up, too. For example, while Elvis did pose for a photo with BB King in real life, these two were not quite as close as the movie depicted them of being. And like in the movie, Elvis had an argument with Tom Parker and fired him in a fit of rage. However, in real life, that was in private, not in front of an audience on the International Hotel’s stage. Also, it was for reasons unrelated to what Elvis reprimanded Tom Parker for in the movie.
However, here’s the good news. Despite the movie straying from 100% fact, some of its biggest fans happen to include the Presley family. They were utterly amazed by how perfectly Baz Luhrmann captured the soul and spirit of Elvis Presley in film. Lisa Marie, Elvis’ daughter, admitted that if her deceased son, Benjamin Keough, had been alive to see the movie, he would’ve been as over the moon seeing his grandfather portrayed so respectfully as she, Priscilla, and his brothers and sisters were. That’s huge praise coming from the family of the movie’s main subject.
I first heard of Elvis’ music when I was around ten years old, starting specifically through Lilo and Stitch and with songs such as ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘Viva Las Vegas.’ And every time I heard his songs, I felt like I got a kick out of them thanks to the jive-talking tunes and Elvis’ unique and always lively singing voice. Now, I got as much of a kick peeking into his life and rise into superstardom through this movie. With Baz Luhrmann, you’d expect his sense of filmmaking to pertain to his usual style over substance manner. However, with Elvis, I generally feel like it did a fantastic job of balancing its substance with its style, wavering frequencies notwithstanding; everything about this movie that worked really worked. The performances were marvelous, the story of Elvis Presley felt empathetic, the characters felt as natural as can be, the settings’ portrayals from the 50s through the 70s were sometimes homely and sometimes grand, and the music as only Elvis perfected or idolized was displayed in all its grandeur. The result is a two-and-a-half-hour tour de force that is as electrifying as Elvis himself was when he was alive.
Elvis may have left the building, but with his classic songs and now this movie, he’ll always remain in our hearts.
A high B+
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