There’s a scene toward the end of Elvis in which the titular character, played by Austin Butler, has had enough of the Las Vegas performing as well as Col. Tom Parker’s constant meddling and obstruction that he fires Parker and walks off stage. Later, Parker (Tom Hanks) pulls out some papers and tells an assistant to make note of expenses he’s paid for Presley since they first started about 20 years earlier. The first item he says Presley owes him is $1.25 for gas.
Now, I got to looking online and an inflation calculator reports that $1.25 around the mid-1950s would be less than $15. Now, imagine that someone spends $15 on gas which would be four or five gallons in this era to give you a ride somewhere and about two decades later, they say you owe them that $15. It’s petty and low, but a man like Parker was petty and low. It’s no surprise he started out working on the road at the carnival and state fairs. Parker was no different than the conmen mostly associated with carnivals and state fairs.
That being said, a movie about The King told from the point of view of Parker might have been a good idea if a different director handled it and a different actor was in the role. I can imagine Martin Scorsese, who often directs movies about people with questionable backgrounds, could’ve made this a great movie. Baz Luhrmann is all about the style and it’s on full display here. He did wonders with Moulin Rouge because that movie was about style. But he’s not on substance. Parker was a conman, a grifter who got lucky because he found someone he could exploit who wouldn’t put their foot down. He knew what to tell Presley and his family to basically get as much as he could out of him.
And Hanks has played characters who get angry and upset. That was his whole schtick in the 1980s it seemed where he had to have the one freakout scene. But with a weasley Eurotrash accent and buried behind make-up to make him look like Boss Hogg, it doesn’t work. You need an actor who’s good at playing an asshole, for lack of a better word. Hanks isn’t an asshole, despite what conspiracy theorists say. Bill Murray, Michael Douglas, Gary Cole, James Spader, Mark Strong and even Christopher McDonald or John C. McGinley are good at playing assholes. Hell, Tom-fucking-Cruise does his best work when he is playing a total dick.
But Tom Hanks?
Also, this is yet another story about Presley’s life that has been told time and time again. Kurt Russell played Presley in a 1979 TV movie and even though I haven’t seen it all, he did well enough to show some humanity to Presley. The Showtime TV comedy movie Elvis Meets Nixon took a different angle to portray Presley like never before. It has its faults but it showed just how out of touch Presley was as well as somewhat racist.
Luhrmann focuses on the razzle-dazzle of Presley and that’s where I think Parker was able to exploit Presley as a sideshow attraction in Las Vegas. And Vegas has always been about attracting people that they’ll win a lot of money but it’s usually only luck. It’s rumored the powers that be went after Parker to make Presley to do it in order to pay off his massive gambling debt. In Vegas at a time, owing too much could get you seriously injured or worse. And it’s sad that this period is the one most people remember of Presley. Because Luhrmann films it at his lowest point as he’s strung out of pills and having sex with various women in his penthouse.
Luhrmann barely touches on his period in the 1960s when he was just doing movies and nothing else. It’s really just used as a segue to the famous 1968 Christmas special. More is made of this special Presley, they could have called the movie Here Comes Santa Claus because they talk about this song so freaking much in a short period. Parker wants Presley to sing it. Presley wants to do his own thing and sing non-Christmas song in a leather jacket. And the Christmas special that aired did bring Presley back on top.
But the movie never really touches on Presley himself. Earlier scenes of Presley hanging out on Beale Street with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison), Little Richard (Alton Mason), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey) and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) give the movie a feeling of excitement and energy that is lacking from the rest of the movie. Presley was raised poor in Tupelo, Miss., and he was around many black people and saw them perform and sing. This was how he was able to bridge the gap between white audience and black music, even though it’s very controversial.
A movie about Presley and other musicians on Beale Street might have made a better movie. This unfortunately becomes your standard biopic as it follows Presley rise from obscurity through all the levels of success, and the problems that arise before his eventual downward spiral. And there’s even a sense of the white savior trope. Why could Luhrmann had taken a different angle to tell Presley’s story? We know all about what happened. Why spend so much time on Parker when he’s not a likeable character to begin with?
I also got the sense that as an Australian, Luhrmann was kinda mocking America during this era. Butler does a nice job on the stage when he sings and Luhrmann focuses on the infamous “Elvis the Pelvis” gyrations that got young women wild and conservative Christian adults angry. And that’s another problem. There’s all the controversy over how much the authorities were afraid of Presley to the point that they tried to get him banned from appearing on TV. And then there’s the “Why I never?” reaction to the adults who can’t believe someone is doing something that seems so tame today. Hank Snow (David Wenham) is barely featured as the more conservative and more established performer touring with Presley.
But I’m not believing this was the first time young women fawned over a male performer. There were reports that women attempted suicide when Rudolph Valentino died three decades earlier. And Frank Sinatra was already making women swoon. It felt more like the scenes in Catch Me If You Can where all the women go nuts over seeing Leo in a Pan Am pilots uniform. Luhrmann who co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Jeremy Doner and Craig Pearce throw everything they can about Presley’s life in a movie that is well over two-and-a-half hours long but seems more like to flow more like “Then this happened and that happened.”
Even worse, Luhrmann adds covers of Presley songs to the soundtrack that are very out of place. It takes aways from the performances of the real people being portrayed. Presley has been passed away for 45 years now which is longer than when he was alive. What is the fascination with him that so many people impersonating him? Even John Lennon said before Presley, there was nothing. And like Presley, Lennon was in his early 40s when he was fatally shot. How come The Beatles don’t get that attention?
I think it’s because Presley seemed wholesome to Americans despite the fact that he wasn’t. He went after Priscilla when she was 14. He took so much medication. His politics probably didn’t sit well with younger audiences in the late 1960s and 1970s. Even though the movie shows Presley been affected by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, you can probably guess he didn’t care for the Vietnam War protestors. I think it’s because Presley was a gimmick that Parker sold. It’s easier to impersonate a gimmick over and over.
That’s a lot going on in Elvis but it never manages to make a coherent story. If the objective was to wait Parker, then mission accomplished. But it was pretty obvious in the first half hour. Then, there’s two more hours. It’s all shook up.
What do you think? Please comment.