ELVIS: Turns the King of Rock and Roll into a Caricature
The new Baz Luhrmann biopic about Elvis Presley is reawakening a sleeping giant! But, how close is the film to reality? As a film, it is far from perfect. The portrayal of Elvis Presley as he moved through his life as a young child up until his death in 1977, has many blanks and questions. Too many to count as reality. Too much time is spent focusing on Elvis Presley the matinée idol, and not Elvis the person. Also, way too much time is spent on his relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker. Not nearly enough time is spent on why the music was causing such a stir.
A little secret, while Elvis’ moves were controversial at the time, Elvis’ rise to prominence came long before the world saw him perform. Elvis’ contribution to our culture was not his stage antics. It was his interpretation of the music and turning it into what is now called Rock and Roll!
Unfortunately, every review focuses on Tom Hanks’ performance. This IS a movie about Elvis, right?
What was accurate in the movie:
Austin Butler provided a solid performance. His interpretation of Elvis, his inflections, and his stage presence were spot on. I found myself (an avid Elvis Fan) seeing Elvis in front of me. I never saw Elvis in person, so this would be as good as it gets for me… He had me at hello.
From the start of the film to the end, it was obvious he was taking on the character, warts and all.
Unfortunately, and this is not an acting issue, it is more of a physical issue, Butler more closely resembled the teenage Elvis. He did not grow physically so he did not look like Elvis after the 1950s. Butler’s looks did not change whereas Elvis had matured and became a more solid-looking person. Butler’s image remained more teen-like.
That being said, Butler’s performance was flawless. His movements and performances of Elvis: from the nineteen-year-old Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride; to the re-emergence of Elvis in the television special; then onto Las Vegas and live performances, were as close as anyone could get to the real Elvis. I found myself following the moves and getting an exact portrayal of what Elvis would have done. As a rabid Elvis fan, there could be no interpretation. This was Elvis. Either Butler would get it or not. Similar to Kurt Russel’s performance 40 years ago, Butler was true to his subject. He could not have performed his role any better.
What was the goal of the film?
If Baz Luhrmann’s sole directorial goal was to capture Elvis the performer and display that to his audience, he more than succeeded. The performance and Butler’s presentation was more than flawless, absolutely capturing and delivering the essence of Elvis.
If this were the sole purpose of the film, the film was a resounding success.
Unfortunately, this was not the sole purpose of the film. The film was to portray Elvis throughout his life and quite possibly get a glimpse into Elvis’ thoughts and motivations. I do not believe we got that. This was not Butler’s flaw, it was the flaw of the script and the director.
What was missed?
If the goal was to capture Elvis the person, his motivations, and why he ascended to superstardom – in that respect – the movie failed miserably.
Luhrmann focused solely on the Colonel’s interpretation of events, rather than Elvis’ perspective. We never learned what made Elvis the King of Rock and Roll, his accidental rise to superstardom, and the effects of the music on our culture.
(I cover that in detail in my book Elvis: The King of Rock and Roll – Book 1: The Crowning of a King.)
Yet, accumulating more information and exposing Elvis’ motivations is difficult or impossible. Those who knew him best, to this day, do not speak about their intimate conversations. Whether they did not occur (as Elvis was not someone who shared his intimate feelings), or they were difficult to obtain (those closest to Elvis are reluctant to this day to share Elvis’ intimate thoughts), is a flaw. Luhrmann should have given us some glimpse inside. Even Kurt Russell in his 1979 portrayal was more thoughtful.
Elvis Wanted Privacy
While Elvis loved his fans, encouraged them by visiting them at the Gate and sharing time one on one with them, he was for the most part private. For example – people cannot go upstairs to the bedrooms at Graceland. They may tour the residence, but upstairs was and is off-limits to anyone but family.
Elvis rarely did intimate interviews and was a private person. From today’s social media standards, where people discuss what they ate for dinner last night, or describe their every movement, that did not exist in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s. Reality TV is a new cultural phenomenon. There could never be a reality show called “Hanging With The Presleys”, Elvis was too private for that. Many who were with Elvis share events, and stories of what happened as observers. No one shares any of Elvis’ intimate thoughts or feelings. Because he was so large a celebrity, he was reluctant to trust anyone he did not know well with his innermost thoughts. He was often burned by those he thought had earned his trust. Elvis was known to banish anyone who shared any kind of personal information about him, he considered that a breach of trust. From the beginning, Elvis did not shed light on his thoughts and feelings.
Tom Hanks as The Colonel
Tom Hanks’ lead role in any film shifts the focus from what should have been a movie about Elvis to Hanks’ performance. Hanks portrayal of The Colonel (as he expected to be called), is a debatable experience. Critics spend more time breaking down Hanks’ performance than talking about Elvis. Is Hanks’ accent too thick, and possibly annoying at times? Are the make up and prosthetics used a bit too much? Does it cause us to focus on Hanks instead of the subject of the movie which was Elvis? Does his performance not explain or leave loose ends about what actually happened? The answer to all of those is a resounding YES.
Hanks gave a solid performance, based on the material provided. He delivers a credible portrayal of someone who had a tremendous influence over the career, life, and death of Elvis Presley. However, what should have been a movie about Elvis turned into a movie about Elvis from The Colonel’s eyes. Those eyes were skewed at best, ultimately turning Elvis into a caricature of his brilliant self.
Obviously, the aim of the project was to demonize The Colonel, shifting responsibility for Elvis’ actions to Parker, providing context for Elvis’ excessive behavior and drug use (he was bored or misunderstood). The dislike of Parker from those who were most involved in the project is evident. Elvis’ family (Priscilla) and close friend (Jerry Schilling) gave Buhrmann much of the direction. Their goal in all of this was to protect Elvis’ image.
Follow the Money – Colonel Tom Parker – The Grifter
In life, Elvis gave all the business management responsibility to people who did not look out for his interests. His father, Vernon, was grossly incompetent in managing finances and had no concept of investments. The Colonel’s job was to make Elvis money, it was not his job to invest it. Where The Colonel should have invested, in quality music or script writers, he skimped. He did not care about the quality of the product his client could produce. Once Elvis had passed into the stratosphere of popularity, The Colonel was just keeping the money flowing. Both The Colonel, who gambled, and Vernon his father were poor caretakers of the Elvis cash flow.
It is hard to understand why Elvis trusted Parker; his mother Gladys, and quite possibly Priscilla and Schilling certainly did not. Note: Elvis made money in ways other than the traditional musical path. The Colonel made money for Elvis on pennies (memorabilia, collectibles) which accounted for millions – and a significant portion of Elvis’ income and estate. Elvis was the first to be a pioneer in merchandising an image – thanks to The Colonel. Later, The Colonel, as the movie depicts, was in constant fear of losing his cash cow and this led to some dubious moves. The Colonel was a great con man, he was great at pointing to others as culprits. Therefore nobody ever realized The Colonel was the problem all along, until it was too late.
What The Movie Missed?
The movie missed so much of the richness of Elvis’ life. In addition, why we missed his discovery by Sam Phillips is not explained. Unfortunately, we hear nothing about people like Dewey Phillips, Sam Phillips and Marion Kiesker – they are just snippets, with the expectation the viewer would know who they are. But they were significant forces that made Elvis possible. To the casual viewer, this means nothing, unless you know the back story. The film treats George Klein (GK), and others as irresponsible kids, with no understanding of why they were there- to protect Elvis from those who would unscrupulously take advantage.
I am happy the movie did not track the womanizing, though it did touch on it. We never really felt the bond between Elvis and his mother. Priscilla unfortunately, is relegated to almost a footnote. We never hear Linda Thompson mentioned once.
The film focused on the absurd notion that his movements and wiggling sparked the controversy, not the music. It did not spend a moment analyzing how Elvis created the genre of Rock and Roll. Why were BB King, Little Richard, and Big Momma Thornton brought in? The most important aspects of Elvis’ career, the fusion of Rhythm and Blues, Gospel and Hillbilly music into Rock and Roll, and the adoption of black “race music”, were ignored, and this was possibly the film’s biggest flaw. The movements were focused on and turned him into a dancing bear. Perhaps that description fits into The Colonel’s promotion and point of view, but that was NOT Elvis’ contribution. His contribution was his inclusiveness of all races, which is the most important part of his music.
Elvis was Responsible for the End Result
Why would Elvis allow The Colonel to push people who were positive influences away? Why did he accept and ignore the music and film quality? These are key points that took Elvis away from the top of the charts. It led to the rise of the “British Invasion” (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones). This was never explained in the context of what was happening in 1960s culture, when Elvis came back from the Army. Totally missed was what happened to Scotty and Bill, Lieber and Stoller, Ann Margaret, and also Chuck Moman’s role in his 1970 comeback to the music charts.
Why could Elvis ever allow The Colonel to change his music? Why did he turn him into a singing cartoon? These issues are not discussed. The Christmas special, while a clue, leaves the audience asking: Why is Elvis accepting this? But, Luhrmann’s work missed exploring it in any detail.
Most importantly, they also missed Dewey Phillips’ influence and contribution, which created the most important line in the film: “Those people ain’t gonna change me none.”
Saying Elvis had all of these things just happen to him, without understanding the context of what happened, is inexcusable. Ultimately, the film portrays Elvis as an unwilling participant in his life, trying to correct it at the last moment. That, unfortunately, was far from the case.
Was the film good? Yes. But I wish there was more introspection. But – it’s a movie, right?