Elvis, written and directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby) includes a familiar flashy montage, at times pressuring the story forward via glitz as opposed to substance. Luhrmann takes on a lot of history, and, at times, the film over-reaches but remains an intriguing and enjoyable 2 hours and 39 minutes.

Elvis Presley Credit: Pixabay stock image

The first and repeating narrative we encounter is that of Col. Tom Parker, played by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hanks. In the opening scene, we meet him as a sick, old man, complaining that history has blamed him for mismanaging Presley’s troubled career. He wants us to know “his side.”

Elvis Aaron Presley was born Jan. 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Miss. His family suffered extreme poverty but were rich in spirit, devout congregants of the Rev. W.H. Brewster’s Black Pentecostal church in Memphis.

As a youth, Presley split his time between church and nearby Beale Street, where he experienced a different understanding of spiritual freedom from music, rhythm and blues, and the power to express with his body what could not be said at home or church.

The screenplay unfolds the conflict between these dissonant influences with convincing and compelling success. Young Presley was hungry to take his family out of poverty’s bondage and music allowed him the creative license to peel away his inhibitions in the process.

Luhrmann makes multiple attempts to credit the Black musicians of Beale Street who Elvis emulated to stardom: B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark, Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Little Richard (Alton Mason) and Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). They took Presley in and helped mold the eager student in their image.

Beale Street infused young Presley with soul, which was critical to his success. The movie shows that he returned there repeatedly to ask advice of his Beale Street family when things got rough.

The obsessed, ambitious, star-struck musician dominated the first half of the movie. As expected from Luhrmann, the production is huge, filled with flash and color, maxing out our senses with every performance.

President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley in the Oval office on Dec. 21, 1970. Credit: Pixabay stock image

Luhrmann often yanks us out of intimate scenes with micro-flashes forward or backward, as if to say the sum of Presley’s life far extends the limitation of any one scene. The flashbacks remind viewers the movie is about an iconic musician’s rise and demise. If you’re hoping to stay in the moment with Elvis the man, you may be left wanting.

Austin Butler’s dangling bangs and smoldering good looks help create a striking resemblance to Presley.

Hanks and Butler share an uncanny on-screen intimacy that was both complicated and tragic.

During a pre-release interview with People magazine, Butler revealed that, early in preproduction, Hanks sent him a typewriter from his personal collection. In the chrome typewriter was a letter from Hanks as Parker to Elvis. Butler responded in kind and together they had multiple in-character correspondences, thereby crystalizing their relationship, the backbone of this angled story.

Butler’s voice and interpretation of Presley’s stage presence was spot-on, especially given the fact that Butler had never performed in public before.

Any review must discuss the actor’s crotch and butt, which Luhrmann apparently found cinematically irresistible.

There were 100-too-many crotch shots, exceeded only by frames of screaming, hormone-crazed women of all ages and their left-in-the-dust escorts. Put mildly, Presley was not popular with male social gatekeepers.

At one point in 1956, young Elvis was summoned before a judge in Jacksonville, Fla., who threatened to arrest him for “impairing the morality of minors.” Here the film takes artistic license and portrays him as willful and resistant, hip-thrusting as usual, and getting deeper in trouble. In reality, Presley stood center stage and performed those six Jacksonville gigs without his signature moves.

Enter Parker, scheming again on how to maximize his financial exploitation of Presley’s career.

We are never happy to see him. It was clear that the risk of censorship would have translated to serious loss of income for Parker. When Presley was called to the draft in 1957, at the height of his career, Parker enthusiastically encouraged him to serve, expecting him to return as a mature, clean cut, less sexually provocative version of himself.

Despite having multiple offers by the Army to be a recruiting model or to entertain the troops, Presley chose to serve as a regular soldier. He saw active duty with an armored division near Frankfurt, Germany.

While away, his mother died of a heart attack. Their relationship was the emotional anchor of Presley’s formative years. She was his north star. Between active duty and losing his mother, Presley returned a lost man.

The second half of the movie is a somewhat more intimate exploration of Presley, and his growing awareness and apparent powerlessness to fight exploitation by Parker. As vibrant with glitz and flash as the first half was, the second half follows Presley down the story arc to darker places, while preserving the obvious truth of his remarkable talent and place in history as an artist.

Presley’s performances were still heart-stopping, but his ability to control his career was slowly being squeezed by Parker’s manipulation of when, where and how often he performed.

Motivated by greed, Parker overbooked Presley whenever he could. It was nearly impossible for him to keep up, especially considering the stamina required to achieve the showmanship his audiences expected. Presley was routinely propped up by amphetamines prescribed by his traveling “team doctor.” We are shown early in the film that Presley was genetically loaded for addiction. In 1973, his marriage to Pricilla Presley ended, though they continued to co-parent their daughter, Lisa-Marie.

During the sunset of his career, Presley knew Parker was a fraud, and he tried to find new management, but Parker’s fatherly influence over him remained strong.

There, we appreciate the on-screen intimacy between Hanks and Butler, as we come to understand the emotional hold Parker had on Presley. In the end, he realized Parker was never the father figure he made himself out to be. We saw Parker’s despicable exploitation of Presley from the very beginning, but Presley did not.

The final scenes of the film are surprising and spectacular. Kudos to Luhrmann’s apparent self-awareness of his limitations. Elvis is an historic and pertinent film, worth the money and worth the heartbreak.

Doris Popovich is a freelance feature writer for the Evanston Roundtable. Areas of concentration are ever-changing and include Arts, Culture, Nature, Spirituality, and Healthcare.

2 replies on “‘Elvis’ shows all the glitz and heartbreak of the artist himself”

  1. I look forward to these movie reviews as Popovich digs way below the surface to offer historical and biographical background treasures.

  2. Sounds like an interesting movie. Presley was a complex personality, and his relationship with Parker was known to be problematic. I wasn’t planning to see the movie until I read this review, but now I think I will. Well done!

Comments are closed.