Accounts of musicians often barter in rather exaggerated claims that whatever band or artist they’re covering “changed the world” with their music and usually that’s just hype but I think there could be an argument to be made that Elvis Presley really did shift the culture in a pretty big way and that his life really “means something” about his era and his country. He’s also someone who’s become something of a lightning rod for controversy as the poster boy for the appropriation of black music by white musicians. It’s been over thirty years since Chuck D said “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” in his song “Fight the Power.” Between that and memories of him as an overweight drug addict in his later years meant that in the eyes of my generation he was hardly “the king” of anything and in many ways he was kind of a joke. But to the old people he seemed to still matter a whole lot. Personally, I always thought a lot of the cultural appropriation accusations had some truth to them but were also kind of hating the player instead of the game. On the other other hand, Elvis’ actual music never really did a whole lot for me. He had some good tunes, but I certainly never went through an “Elvis phase” like I went through a “Beatles phase” and a “Dylan phase” I don’t think I’m alone in that. By and large he mostly struck me as a historical curiosity. But his power as an icon does still matter and that’s why you really can’t make a movie about him even today without taking on a lot of baggage, so Baz Luhrmann certainly had his work cut out for him when he embarked on doing just that with his new movie, simply titled Elvis.
This can fairly be described as a “birth to death” biopic of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), but is told via voiceover by his infamously shady manager, who goes by the name Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The two meet when Parker, who is looking for a new musical draw for his traveling carnival, sees him at a radio performance in Louisiana. Presley has already cut some records for Sun but is only known regionally. Parker sees the effect he has on the young female concertgoers and instantly sees dollar signs and gets Presley to sign on. From there we see his controversial early career, his odd psychodramas with his mother (Helen Thomson) and father (Richard Roxburgh), his military stint when he met Pricilla (Olivia DeJonge), his time making bad movies in the 60s, the making of his comeback special, and his final drug addled and paranoid years in Las Vegas residency.
This is certainly not the first movie to tell Elvis’ story and it’s not likely to be the last. The novelty here is supposed to be that the film is told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, and I must say that strikes me as kind of an odd and inconsistent choice for the film. The film certainly isn’t shy about depicting events that Parker was not a witness to and one can imagine that if the voiceover were dropped and a couple of other bits were edited out this perspective wouldn’t be apparent at all. So why was this chosen for the film? Honestly I’m not exactly sure, I think they saw “Hamilton” and thought they would do something similar to what that musical did with Aaron Burr, but they don’t really do a lot of work to meaningfully explore Parker’s point of view in any interesting way. They guy basically admits upfront to being a conman from the beginning and doesn’t seem to try to justify himself or view himself as a hero in his own story. Maybe that could have worked if the film just leaned into Parker as a knowing bad guy whose voiceover is framed as some kind of confession like Salieri in Amadeus but the film doesn’t really do that either.
It also of course doesn’t help that Tom Hanks’ performance in this role is kind of ridiculous. To play the role Hanks has donned a fatsuit and put on a lot of makeup and in both his voiceover and dialogue he speaks in near broken English through a thick and highly affected Dutch accent. It is true that the real Parker (real name Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) was a originally from Holland but he’d already been living in the United States for nearly thirty years when he met Elvis and had nearly erased all trace of his former accent. There aren’t a lot of recordings of his voice, but if you look them up there are only small trace hints of his secret identity when he speaks that most would have assumed were from some obscure southern dialect. In his performance Hanks ignores that completely and talks like Goldmember through the whole movie and it’s freaking weird. And I don’t just bring this up because the accent is inaccurate or because it makes it seem very strange when the movie treats the reveal of his nationality like it’s a shocking twist in the third act. Rather, it’s because it’s indicative of a lot of mistakes the film makes in its construction of this character. This is a man that Elvis spent a lot of his career unquestionably trusting in pretty much all matters of business for years and years and watching this movie you haven’t the slightest clue why. The man seems like a bizarre snake of a human being the second he comes on screen and Elvis’ trust in him doesn’t make a bit of sense. The film should have given us a few more scenes of Parker actually establishing him as an actual canny promoter early on in Presley’s eyes, but more importantly the film should have depicted him as someone with some of that signature Tom Hanks charm early on rather than treating him like a bizarre over the top lothario.
Looked at a certain way hanks’ performance sort of fits in with director Baz Luhrmann’s usual maximalist approach. This is, after all, the guy who has been defined by the MTV aesthetic for his entire career from the hyper-kinetic period musical Moulin Rouge to his hip-hop inflected adaptation of The Great Gatsby. And he does bring the same kind of bombast to parts of this movie but sort of never really picks a single gimmick and sticks with it. At one point it adopts the visual language of comic books to make the rather strange argument that Elvis was a kind of superhero whose power was music, which feels like either an odd play for Shazam! synergy on the part of Warner Brothers or like a misguided attempt by Lurmann to connect with “the youth” but either way it just kind of oddly enters the film and then leaves it without really completing the argument. The film also tries incorporating some of the hip-hop songs it commissioned for a “music inspired by” soundtrack into the background, not unlike what Luhrmann tried to do with his The Great Gatsby adaptation, but again he doesn’t really commit to this and the two or three brief moments this is tried just kind of come out of nowhere and feel pretty out of place. Luhrmann’s tricks certainly aren’t always unwelcome: he handles a montage of Elvis’ time in Hollywood quite well and he also uses a number of unconventional tricks to depict Elvis’ downward spiral towards the end, but when one of his ideas falls flat it really just kind of dies on the screen.
A big part of why all this Luhrmann-ian tomfoolery feels out of place is that there are pretty long stretches of the movie that do play out like a much more conventional Elvis biopic. In particular, Austin Butler is playing things very straight in the title role and does an exceptional job for the most part. By all accounts Butler only does some of his own singing in the movie but beyond that he does pretty much everything else that would be expected from an Elvis biopic performance and probably does eclipse Kurt Russell’s work in the 1979 TV film of the musician’s life. He looks like the real guy and also captures his moves, accent, and mannerism. It’s like a performance out of a completely different movie than the one Tom Hanks is in. So, I’m in something of an awkward position in that I’m kind of asking for this to have been a more routine and straightforward biopic of the kind I’m usually opposed to. Look, ideally I’d like this to do something different and have that something different succeed, like what Dexter Fletcher was able to do with the recent Elton John biopic Rocketman. But if the “new ideas” you’re bringing in don’t flow naturally they become a problem and playing it safe starts to feel like the preferable option. But I don’t necessarily want to make this film out to be a complete trainwreck because it really isn’t. In fact it does a decent amount right. Some of the film’s best sequences work really really well and they will make the experience worth it to some. I’m certainly not rooting against the film and on balance would rather see Hollywood make more movies like it, but for me the things that are messy and unwieldy about the film just kind of bring it down and disappoint me.
**1/2 out of Five