June 22, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Culture Representation: Taking place from 1946 to 1977, in various parts of the United States, the dramatic film “Elvis” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy in this biopic of superstar entertainer Elvis Presley.
Culture Clash: Presley had many personal battles in his life, including those related to racial segregation, his drug addiction, his doomed marriage to Priscilla Presley and his troubled relationship with manager Colonel Tom Parker.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Elvis Presley fans, “Elvis” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and music biopics that go big on spectacle-like filmmaking.
The vibrant biopic “Elvis” continues filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s pattern of making a protagonist’s life story look like a manic-energy carnival. The musical numbers are fantastic, but viewers should expect a very glossy version of Elvis Presley’s life. Luhrmann directed and co-wrote “Elvis,” and he is one of the movie’s producers. People who are familiar with Luhrmann’s previous movies (including 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby”) will already know that he isn’t a filmmaker known for being miniminalist or showing restraint.
Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” just like Elvis Presley, is a mass of contradictions but can be counted on to deliver spectacular performances on stage. Even with a total running time of 159 minutes, “Elvis” leaves out or fast-forwards through many important aspects of Presley’s life. But other parts of the movie drag with repetition and linger too long in scenes where the story should have already moved on to something else. Luhrmann co-wrote the “Elvis” screenplay with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner. The movie was filmed in Luhrmann’s native Australia.
At times, this “Elvis” movie looks like a lengthy music video, with enough quick cuts to give some viewers the cinematic version of whiplash. Other times, “Elvis” attempts to get into the more serious and emotionally complex areas of Presley’s life before zipping off into one of several whirling-dervish montages that fill up this movie. It’s a change of pace and tone that might be off-putting to some viewers who are looking for a more conventional way of telling the story.
For example, the courtship and marriage of Elvis and Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (played by Olivia DeJonge) are very rushed into the story and aren’t given a lot of depth. The movie leaves out the fact that in real life, when Elvis began dating Priscilla in 1959, she was 14 and he was 24. They met when he was enlisted in the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany, where Priscilla’s U.S. Air Force stepfather was also stationed at the time.
In real life, Elvis also convinced Priscilla’s parents to let her move in with him when she was still an underage teen. It’s probably not a coincidence that Priscilla is portrayed by an actress who never looks underage. That’s because bringing up possible stautory rape in connection to Elvis would ruin the movie’s intention to make him look like a superstar who was exploited by a greedy and corrupt manager.
Sometimes, the actors give performances that look like impersonations, while in other scenes, the actors seem to truly embody their characters. This dictonomy is especially true for Austin Butler (who portrays the adult Elvis Presley) and Tom Hanks (who plays manager Colonel Tom Parker), whose love/hate business partnership is the movie’s central conflict. Their best scenes are those where they look the most natural and don’t try to overdo the “larger than life” aspects of their respective characters’ personalities.
Butler’s performance is much better in the scenes depicting Elvis in the last 10 years of his life, when Elvis’ health was on a steady decline due to his drug addiction. (Elvis died of a heart attack in 1977, at the age of 42.) In the scenes of Elvis’ adult years before he became famous and during his fame from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, Butler just looks like he’s doing a competent Elvis impersonation. The movie starts to improve considerably when Butler shows more emotional depth as the sweaty, “hooked on drugs” version of Elvis, because it’s a portrayal of man who’s on a downward spiral but still desperately trying to stay on top.
Elvis’ controlling manager Parker, whose real name was Andreas Cornelis (Dries) van Kuijk, was born in the Netherlands, but he pretended for years that he was born and raised in the United States. In real life, Parker (who died in 1997, at the age of 87) hid his true identity and undocumented immigration status. This deception is in the movie, but as a plot twist reveal that will not surprise anyone who knows about Parker, or anyone who notices Hanks’ very over-the-top European accent in the movie. There are parts of the movie where Hanks’ prosthetic makeup and his Dutch-like accent are very distracting. Hanks’ accent also sometimes sounds German and sometimes sounds like a western European trying to sound American.
In real life, when Parker was Elvis’ manager, Parker did not have a heavy European accent, as portrayed in this movie. Parker had a very believable American accent in real life. How else would he have been able to fool so many people into thinking that he was a born-and-raised American if he had a European accent? This quasi-European accent is one of the characteristics of Parker that this “Elvis” movie gets wrong.
Because so much of Elvis’ life has already been dissected and depicted in many other ways (including Elvis impersonators becoming both a cottage industry and the butt of a lot of jokes), Luhrmann’s “Elvis” at least takes a unique approach of telling this story with narration from Parker. The movie’s opening scene shows Parker collapsing from a heart attack and taken to a hospital. During this narration, Parker repeatedly says versions of this statement: “Without me, there would be no Elvis Presley. And yet, there are some who would make me the villain of this here story.”
Elvis’ childhood gets a comic-book panel treatment (literally) in this “Elvis” movie, as the movie uses comic book panels and comic-book-type illustrations to show chapter transitions in Elvis’ youth. Born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aaron Presley is portrayed as someone who was influenced from an early age by music, particularly R&B and gospel music. Elvis had a twin brother named Jessie Garon Presley, who was stillborn. The film briefly mentions the death of Elvis’ twin brother, but the movie does not explore (as other biographies have done) how Elvis was haunted by this death.
Elvis was famously a “mama’s boy” who worshipped his mother Gladys (played by Helen Thomson), who was a strong-willed and dominant force in his life. Elvis’ father Vernon (played by Richard Roxburgh) is portrayed as someone who was often overshadowed by Gladys in Elvis’ eyes. However, Vernon still had a huge influence on Elvis, especially after Parker decided that Vernon should be Elvis’ business manager.
It was a ultimately not a good decision, considering that Vernon had trouble keeping a steady job up until that point, Vernon had no experience as a successful businessperson, and Elvis experienced major financial problems in the years leading up to his death. It also didn’t help that Parker was a gambling addict. The movie portrays Parker’s gambling addiction as one of the reasons why he was so money-hungry and willing to do unscrupulous things to get access to Elvis’ fortune.
When Elvis was 13 years old, he and his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, the city that is most closely associated with Elvis’ childhood and young adulthood. (Chaydon Jay has the role of the adolescent Elvis in the movie.) Vernon got into trouble with the law in 1938, when he was imprisoned for eight months for check forgery. As a result of these legal problems, the family lost their home and had to move to a lower-income area that was populated by mostly African Americans.
The movie makes it look like Elvis was the only white kid in his area who was allowed or interested in going to the African American religious church revivals that were held in tents, where he would watch the passionate gospel performances in awe. Elvis was also a fan of R&B music at a time when it was concered “race music” that was only supposed to be performed and enjoyed by black people. Sometimes, Elvis would get teased or harassed for liking this music, but his decision to perform his version of this music ultimately set him on the road to stardom. Elvis was also a fan of country music, which he incorporated into many of his songs.
While an underage Elvis was sneaking into church revivals in tents, the movie shows Parker spending a lot of his time in another type of event that uses tents: carnivals. Parker is portrayed in flashback scenes as a carnival huckster skilled at selling and at coming up with con games. It’s a skill set that Parker brought with him when he decided to go into the music business. The movie takes a little too much time with scenes of Parker managing country artists such as Hank Snow (played by David Wenham) and his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a musician who would eventually befriend Elvis.
Later, when Elvis and Parker meet in person, the movie stylishly stages this meeting in a carnival hall of mirrors. It’s an example of how this “Elvis” movie has fantastical elements. In real life, the first time Elvis met Parker was probably in a much more non-descript setting. Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife and filmmaking partner) is a producer of “Elvis” and the leader of the movie’s top-notch costume design and production design.
Elvis’ imitation of African American R&B and early rock and roll (rock pioneers Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino were big influences on Elvis) could be considered cultural appropriation or an extreme form of flattery, depending on your perspective. But what most people can agree on is that Elvis’ performance of this music is what caught the attention of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who is widely considered the person who gave Elvis his first big music break.
Elvis’ early recordings on Sun Records were then brought to the attention of Parker, who is portrayed as someone who couldn’t believe that the singer on the recordings was white, not black. And when Parker sees Elvis perform for the first time, Parker says in a narration voiceover what his first impression of Elvis was: “Greasy hair, girlie makeup. I cannot overstate how strange he looked.”
But what really convinced Parker to want to represent Elvis as his personal manager was seeing the audience reaction (especially from females) that Elvis got when Elvis performed on stage and thrust, shook and swiveled his hips and legs in a sexually suggestive manner. The movie makes a point of showing how these stage moves had a primal effect on women and teenage girls in the audience, as Elvis often got them into a frenzy. Expect to see several scenes of Elvis being branded as “lewd and lascivious” for these stage moves in various scenarios, with the controversy fueling his popularity.
One of the odd things about this “Elvis” movie is that there’s a scene where Elvis is on stage early in his career and his band members are the ones to tell him to wiggle his hips more. If you believe this scenario, Elvis wasn’t the one to come up with these sex symbol moves. He had to be talked into it by his band members. Parker says in his ever-present voiceover narration when commenting on women’s lusty reactions to Elvis: “He was a taste of forbidden fruit.”
The movie correctly shows that it was Parker who convinced Elvis to ditch Sun Records for a more lucrative offer from RCA Records, which had the type of national distribution and radio clout that Sun Records did not. Sun Records released some singles from Elvis in 1954 (including his first single “That’s All Right”), but they weren’t hits. Elvis’ first RCA Records single was 1955’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was a smash hit and became his first No. 1 single.
In a flashback voiceover, Parker brags about how he was the first person to create a merchandising bonanza around a pop star. In a very over-the-top scene, Parker shows off a huge stockpile of Elvis-branded merchandise that is cluttered all over a room in a Presley family home. It looks like an Elvis product hoarder decorated the room.
As Elvis became more famous and was spending more time away from home, it started to bother Gladys. The movie has a scene that’s a little on the Oedipal creepy side, where Gladys tells Elvis that she’s worried about the way that his female fans look at him. Gladys acts more like a jealous girlfriend than a mother. And then, Elvis tells his mother, “You’re my girl.”
Elvis’ experiences with groupies are very toned-down in the movie, which has no explicit sex scenes or even explicit sex talk. Priscilla is sidelined for most of the movie. After Priscilla and Elvis get married in 1967, she’s just shown as someone who’s part of his entourage and becomes an increasingly unhappy bystander when he kisses and flirts with female fans at concerts.
For a while, Elvis and Priscilla lived in Los Angeles, but Elvis’ world-famous Graceland estate in Memphis was always considered to be his main home. After Elvis’ death, Elvis Presley Enterprises (which approved this movie) turned Graceland into a tourist attraction. The movie shows some of Elvis’ indulgences, including his lavish spending habits and his tendency to carry around a lot of guns. As expected, there’s a scene of a drug-addled Elvis destroying a TV set by shooting it up with a gun—something that he was known to do in real life from time to time.
Lisa Marie Presley (Elvis and Priscilla’s daughter, who was born in 1968) appears briefly in a few scenes. Priscilla’s breakup scene with Elvis is predictably melodramatic. She screams at him that she’s leaving him not because of his infidelities but because of his addiction to pills. Priscilla throws pills at Elvis before walking out the door. Priscilla and Elvis divorced in 1973, but their legal battles are never shown in the movie. Near the end of the film, there’s a tearjerking scene that’s the final word on their ill-fated romance.
Elvis’ movie star career is rushed through in a series of scenes that culminate with the media reporting that Elvis was cast as Barbra Streisand’s co-star in a 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born,” in which he would be playing a drug-addicted, has-been rock star. Elvis experiences the embarrassment of hearing a radio announcer comment that Elvis wouldn’t have to do much acting for this role. Elvis, who had been trying with no success to become a serious dramatic actor, never did this remake of “A Star Is Born.” Kris Kristofferson ended up in the role.
With his movie career going nowhere, Elvis continues as a Las Vegas attraction at the International Hotel (which is now the Las Vegas Hilton), and as an artist doing several successful U.S. tours. Elvis wants to tour outside the U.S., but Parker keeps coming up with excuses for Elvis not to do these international tours. When the truth is exposed about why Parker is holding back on working outside the U.S., it leads to a turning point in the relationship between Elvis and Parker.
One of the more curious aspects of “Elvis” is that it doesn’t spend a lot of time showing Elvis in the recording studio. He was not a songwriter for almost all of his hits (an exception was his co-songwriting credit for “Heartbreak Hotel”), but this biopic doesn’t provide much insight into how he worked in a recording studio setting. And this “Elvis” movie doesn’t have any significant scenes of actors portraying the major songwriters (including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) who were responsible for writing Elvis’ biggest hits.
However, the movie has several scenes acknowledging the artists who inspired Elvis. Big Mama Thornton (played by Shonka Dukureh) is seen belting out “Hound Dog,” a song that was famously covered by Elvis. Little Richard (played by Alton Mason) appears briefly in a performance clip. During a media event, Elvis points to Fats Domino and says that Domino is the real King of Rock and Roll.
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (played by Gary Clark Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Yola) and Mahalia Jackson (played by Cle Morgan) have small roles in the movie. B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Elvis became mutual admirers of each other, and the movie briefly shows that friendship. If these influential African American artists are shown performing in the movie, it’s for a very limited amount of screen time.
The movie shows glimpses of Elvis being a concerned citizen who wanted to get involved in the civil rights movement, but he was ordered by Parker never to talk about politics in public. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy (both in 1968) and the civil unrest in the U.S. in the late 1960s are all portrayed as media news backdrops to Elvis’ personal problems, while Parker gripes about how America is going downhill because of the hippie counterculture movement. Just like many other Elvis biographies, the movie depicts Elvis as becoming more isolated the older he got and the deeper he got into drug addiction.
Elvis’ entourage, which was famously called the Memphis Mafia, is portrayed as not much more than being a bunch of “yes men” in the movie. The one who gets the most screen time is Jerry Schiller (played by Luke Bracey), who’s mostly seen acting like a personal assistant/security employee. A few of the other Memphis Mafia members portrayed in the movie are Steve Binder (played by Dacre Montgomery), Bones Howe (played by Gareth Davies) and Scotty Moore (played by Xavier Samuel), who don’t do or say anything noteworthy.
Because Elvis was a drug addict, the movie shows that he had his own Dr. Feelgood on the payroll to give injections and pills of whatever drugs were requested. In the movie, this enabling doctor is called Dr. Nick (played by Tony Nixon), and he’s based on the real-life Dr. George Nichopoulos, whose nickname was Dr. Nick. Just like in the movie, the real-life Dr. Nick had a reputation for being a drug supplier to many celebrities, including Elvis. The movie shows that Elvis was mostly addicted to amphetamines and opioids.
A harrowing scene in the movie shows Elvis collapsing backstage during a concert. Members of his entourage frantically try to revive him, but to no avail. The decision must be made to take Elvis to a hospital, or summon Dr. Nick to give Elvis an injection so that Elvis can continue the show. You can easily guess what decision was made in a world where people live by the rule “The show must go on.” The movie makes a point of implying that this scenario happened too many times behind the scenes, and it led to Elvis’ downward spiral.
None of this is really shocking because there have already been so many exposés of Elvis’ private life, there’s really almost no new information to uncover. Luhrmann’s “Elvis” movie isn’t concerned about being a celebrity “tell all” biopic as much as it is concerned about presenting Elvis’ life in ways that are served up like it’s on a conveyor belt and in other ways like it’s part of a splashy musical.
In other words, “Elvis” is a very mixed bag, but it shines the best and brightest in the area that matters the most: showing Elvis as a music artist. The movie has performances of Elvis hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “That’s All Right,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Butler does very good renditions of some these classics, with standout show-stoppers depicting Elvis’ 1968 “comeback” TV special (“Elvis” on NBC) and some of his performances in Las Vegas.
The movie’s soundtrack also has some contemporary, hip-hop-infused remakes of classic songs, such as Doja Cat’s version of “Vegas” and Swae Lee and Diplo’s version of Crudup’s “Tupelo Shuffle,” a song that Elvis also recorded. Eminem’s original song “The King and I”(featuring CeeLo Green) is also part of the movie’s soundtrack. These songs don’t sound completely out of place in the movie, but the contemporary music does take viewers out of the 1950s to 1970s, the decades when Elvis made his music. However, “Elvis” is definitely a crowd pleaser in being a feast of Elvis music, as it should be.
“Suspicious Minds” is the most prominently used Elvis song in the movie. Even though the lyrics are about lovers who’ve lost trust in each other, “Suspicious Minds” could also be a theme song about the growing mistrust in the deteriorating relationship between Elvis and Parker. How much did Parker really play a role in causing Elvis’ downfall? The movie leaves it up to viewers to decide. Even with all of Elvis’ pitfalls and self-destructive excesses, “Elvis” has a clear message that any problems he had in his life were always surpassed by his love of performing and connecting with his fans.
Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Elvis” in U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022. The movie was released in other countries on June 22, 2022.