Austin Butler and Tom Hanks
Director Baz Luhrmann
Warner Bros. Pictures (159 mins)
Y’see, the thing is, Elvis People don’t want a movie about Elvis. We don’t need a movie about Elvis. We already know all the stuff. Simply stated, we just don’t trust people to make a movie about him. We are sceptical that they’ll “get it right”. It’s hard for us not in the entertainment industry to conceive of someone making movies about many subjects and Elvis Presley is just one of them. Now, of course that is the nature of filmmaking, issuing your take on multiple themes throughout the course of your career. And it’s silly to say you never want to see Leonardo DiCaprio play anyone other than Rick Dalton again. Although I do say that. And I have to concede that others who are not necessarily Elvis People specifically can still be fascinated by him, study him and research him and then present their own basically accurate take on him. I suppose.
We Elvis People become apprehensive when we hear that another movie about Presley is in the works. We are concerned with how our boy will be portrayed. But more than that we are frustrated that yet another actor will attempt to convince us that he is Elvis Presley. There was no one like Elvis Presley in so many ways. It is impossible to accept anyone “pretending” to be him. The thing we must accept with aligning ourselves with Presley is his undying universal appeal. Someone somewhere will always have something to say about him and someone somewhere will be ready to tackle the job of portraying him.
Also, when a splashy, big-budget Hollywood movie about Elvis attempts to reach the masses, we have to suffer people talking about him and analyzing him, people that aren’t equipped to and couldn’t care less about him; it is just their job to talk about the latest films. Elvis Presley, to us, is not just the latest film. It sucks for us to have to share him. To us he is more than “what’s playing this weekend?”. You know what I mean?
This brings me to Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis from 2022; one of a plethora of films it seemed would never come out, having suffered delays due to the worldwide pandemic. Speaking of Leonardo DiCaprio, Luhrmann had directed Leo in both Romeo + Juliet (1996) and The Great Gatsby (2013), both highly stylized interpretations of classic stories; which describes actually Luhrmann’s Presley film.
This is an odd review for me. Most films I talk about here are a hundred years old and you’ve all seen them many times. For this brand new movie, I only have a few thoughts to share with very little detail. And by keeping it brief I’m hoping to allow you to experience the film on your own terms with no preconceptions. Although I know I shouldn’t – ever – I had formed an opinion based on some reviews I had read. My assumption was therefore that Austin Butler (“Tex” in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; “I’m as real as a donut”) would be amazing but the movie as a whole would bear Baz Luhrmann’s trademark bonkers stamp and play like one long frenetic montage. Turns out that’s about 75% right.
The movie concerns itself mostly with Elvis Presley’s enigmatic relationship with his manager, Col. Tom Parker, played here by Tom Hanks. The camera does not stop moving during the first quarter of the movie and Baz even employs some comic book graphics so the viewer has no choice but to think they’re in for 2-and-a-half hours of this. The early story is told accurately except perhaps for Gladys Presley (Helen Thomson) looking up at the full moon and saying “Jesse is shining bright tonight”, referring to Elvis’ stillborn twin brother.
Another part that didn’t ring true was the depiction of Presley’s friendship with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). It’s a verified fact that Presley admired black artists but confiding in Blues Boy Riley King about his career is farfetched. And later hanging out with B.B. AND Little Richard (Alton Mason) AND Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) all in the same place at the same time is even more so. Baz and the screenwriters take the easy way out here in their clumsy attempt to depict African-Americans in the story. Elvis’ time spent with these musicians on Beale Street leads to the most absurd part of the film, the only narrative flaw in the movie.
Much is made of Steve Allen presenting “the new Elvis” on his TV show on July 1st, 1956. After King had torn history a new one on The Milton Berle Show with a blistering take on “Hound Dog”, Allen – with an eye to a gimmick – devised a plan to present a watered down version of Presley. Steve dressed Presley in tails and shlepped out a real basset hound for Elvis to sing to. All of this is historically accurate, as is Elvis’ revulsion with being put in such a ridiculous position. But the film takes this “new Elvis” scenario to an extreme it didn’t quite reach in real life, depicting fans picketing everywhere Presley went and railing against these changes and demanding a return to Elvis the Rocker.
Col. Tom tells Elvis this must be the new way for awhile, clean up our act then “someday” you can return to being who you are. After deliberating with B.B. King, Elvis decides he must be true to himself. Then comes a concert at Memphis’ Russwood Park, a baseball stadium (1896-1960) home to minor league ball team the Memphis Chicks. Luhrmann paces things dramatically as Elvis approaches the stage, stewing inside. He has been told that if he performs as he usually does with wild gyrations, he will be imprisoned. Here the viewer is treated to a tried and tested trope; will the hero capitulate or will he stay true to himself? Presley makes the choice we all are expecting and proceeds to deliver an atomically-charged performance of “Trouble” – a song he wouldn’t record for another two years, mind you. Pandemonium ensues. Elvis is finally spirited away and it’s made to seem that a stretch in Angola will be his next engagement. So, the film throws the real life stories of the “new Elvis” and the vice squad filming a show in which Presley can “only move my little finger like this” into a blender and have their way with them. Rubbish. It gets worse.
In the aftermath of the bloodletting at Russwood, Parker is depicted coming up with an idea. I’ll clean up the boy by “putting him” in the Army. Parker talks with the Presley’s at Graceland and tells them that Elvis has only two choices; Parchman or the Service. Bitterly – and devastatingly for his mama – Elvis enters the Army.
This is all I guess what they call “poetic licence” and no one should really squawk when a “biopic” has moments when it becomes more “pic” than “bio”. But for some reason this fabrication seemed ludicrous to me as I sat in my theatre seat. I even threw up my hands. The idea that prison loomed and that’s when Parker conjured up a draft notice is ludicrous. If I’m honest, the first 30 minutes of the film were unsatisfactory from a story standpoint. Once King went overseas and met Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), the film picked up.
The Memphis Mafia and the Hollywood Years are presented in a fun way, the fellas being introduced with their names on the screen making it actually look like a “King Movie”. I was particularly pleased to see one of my faves, Live a Little, Love a Little well represented. They even put Austin Butler’s face on Presley as he walks through the crowd singing “A Little Less Conversation”.
The ’68 Comeback Special is given much weight and handled well. I smirked at the idea of Presley meeting Steve Binder and Bones Howe at the Hollywood sign but the significance of the special is treated appropriately. Regarding his film career, Austin as Elvis says significantly by way of explanation “when you’re lost, people take advantage”. Interesting to hear “Cotton Candy Land” and “Suspicious Minds” is used well. While Elvis is singing the song on stage in Las Vegas, Parker is making a deal to chain Elvis to the desert indefinitely. While King’s fate is being sealed, he sings “caught in a trap”. The Colonel wants, among other things, unlimited credit at the tables and the hotel owner says to the Colonel “You do whatever you want, Colonel, as long as that boy stays on that stage”. Another significant quote comes after Presley resigns himself to staying with the Colonel after trying to break free; “Tell Colonel to send Dr. Nick up”.
Visually, Elvis is quite stunning. Who knows how much computer trickery was used but scenes inside an early version of Graceland, the suite atop the International and one of King’s fantastic buses look remarkable. Many of Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top graphics and optics are used to good effect. Set design, production design and costume design are spot on.
The film is honest and for the most part factually accurate. And it’s sympathetic, as any film endorsed by the estate would be. The Colonel is presented just as he should be, really – validly – and the film does not go easy on him. You’ll come away with no choice but to hand it to Austin Butler for all the heavy lifting he does in this film. It is probably the best – as in truest, most convincing – portrayal we have seen. While he doesn’t get every single move or motion right – who could? – he gets most right.
So I could gush and say that we finally have the movie about Elvis we deserve and we do. But it’s such a crap shoot that I maintain that we’d rather you didn’t make a movie about Elvis, thank you very much. I’m glad though that we have this one.
We don’t want an Elvis movie. But if we did, this would be it.
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