‘Elvis’ Is a Cinematic Wonder, but Does It Shed Light on the Icon’s Real Life Story?

Forrest Hartman


Director Baz Luhrmann’s new examination of the life of Elvis Presley may not be the definitive take on the rock ’n’ roll icon, but it is a cinematic wonder, brimming with personality, spectacle and muscular musical performances. Luhrmann’s Elvis does what the singer himself was so good at, grabbing viewers and transporting them to a realm of pure entertainment.


For those who don’t know much about Elvis, the film may also play as an unexpected tragedy. Presley did, after all, die at the age of 42, ravaged by drugs and abused by handlers, both preventing him from reaching his true artistic potential. Although Elvis’s pipes, groundbreaking dance moves and guitar playing landed him the moniker “King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” it’s nearly certain he would have done even more had he overcome the demons.



Luhrmann focuses on Elvis’s long-term manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who was instrumental in making the singer a household name, but who also funneled more than a fair share of the star’s wealth to his own accounts. Interestingly, the project is narrated by Parker (played by a heavily made-up Tom Hanks), and he does not fancy himself a villain. That said, the movie makes it clear that Parker should not be admired. In the film, Parker remains defensive about his role in Elvis’s life but doesn’t pretend to be wholesome. In fact, he pridefully calls himself “The Snowman,” noting that the key to success is skillfully snowing people … or steering them away from reality.


It's not surprising that a man like this would apply the same rules to clients as to those he is representing, and Hanks paints Parker as equal parts shrewd, brilliant, vain and selfish. Elvis, on the other hand, is portrayed as a talented performer who is also a naïve dupe who falls for Parker’s shenanigans, even after years of abuse.


In fairness, Luhrmann lumps too much blame on Parker, as Presley clearly played a role in his own downfall. Even with Parker pilfering his money, Elvis was able to live a lavish lifestyle, and it is disingenuous to lay the excessive drug use and poor business decisions solely at Parker’s feet. The film also skips over more questionable areas of the singer’s biography, such as the fact that he first wooed would-be wife Priscilla (played nicely in the film by Olivia DeJonge) when she was just 14 and he was a 24-year-old military man involved with another woman. His rumored extramarital affairs are only hinted at -- as is any other questionable behavior by Elvis himself.


Yet, we can forgive Luhrmann for an incomplete vision because authority doesn’t seem to be his goal, and movies work best when they have a point of view. This reading of Elvis is meant to be the story of an incredible talent, who was preyed upon by an incredible marketer and conman, and that story is well told.  



Key to the picture’s success is title star Austin Butler, who passes admirably as Elvis, particularly in his younger years. He even sings some of the iconic star’s songs with the type of panache heard in original recordings. It is far too early to predict an Oscar nomination, but he must be in the conversation. Butler – like Elvis – is thrilling to watch.


Hanks is one of the finest actors of his generation, which makes it strange that his performance is controversial. Personal friends have mentioned that Hanks actually drew them out of the film, in part by choosing an oddball accent that Parker didn’t possess … and in part simply because he is Tom Hanks, bringing the baggage of his own star power. Interestingly, his performance doesn’t bother me, but neither does it stand out. Even noting that Hanks is merely “OK” feels like criticism, considering that he is capable of carrying movies almost single-handedly. Remember Castaway? This isn’t one of Hanks’s best roles, but whether one warms to it or not, there is plenty to like about Elvis.


There’s Butler, of course, but viewers also get a constant bombardment of music and visual wonder mashing Elvis hits with the Golden era of MTV. What’s more, the story is compelling from beginning to end. Elvis’s life may have been sad, but it was also marked by extraordinary accomplishments that every music lover will do well to remember.



Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman is Highbrow Magazine’s chief film critic.


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