Elvis – The Price You Pay for Ignoring Your Roots (4.5*)

Elvis (4.5*) In a dazzling production full of sights and sounds, Baz Luhrmann paints the tragic story of a man who struggled to get back to his cultural roots.

Elvis: Snapshot

Elvis is a superb film with exceptional production values and terrific performances from Tom Hanks (Colonel Tom Parker) and Austin Butler (Elvis Presley).  What makes the movie work, though, is the nearly-frenetic interplay between scenes in different time frames or locations, all stitched together by an unrelenting soundtrack.  The message here is a basic one – that people need the support they get from their cultural background. 

Where to Watch:

Stream: HBO Max or Hulu

Rent: Multiple Sources ($6) or wherever you get your discs

Elvis: The Oscar Buzz

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Leading Actor (Austin Butler)

Film Editing (Matt Villa/Jonathan Redmond)

Cinematography (Mandy Walker)

Sound (Lee/Pashley/Nelson/Keller

Production Design (Martin/Murphy/Dunn)

Costume Design (Catherine Martin)

Makeup & Hairstyling (Coulier/Baird/Signoretti)

Elvis is tied with Tar on my Oscar Quality Index (OQI) ranking 5th out of all 25 general interest nominees.  Both films were nominated for Best Picture and the Leading actors (Austin Butler and Cate Blanchett) were both nominated.  But there are important differences in the rest of the nominations.  While Tar also received Directing and Writing nominations, Elvis did not, suggesting that Academy members appreciated Todd Field’s storytelling better than Baz Luhrman’s.  (And, in fact, Todd Field has been nominated twice before for his screenplays, while Luhrman’s only previous nomination was as a producer (for Moulin Rouge). 

Both films were nominated in the critical movie-making trades of Cinematography and Editing and,  I would agree, are about equal in that regard, although I might give Elvis a lead on Editing simply because it is much more integral to the way Luhrman tells the story.

But Elvis received four nominations in all of what I call the “Production Values” categories – Sound, Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup & Hairstyling – while Tar didn’t score a nomination in any of those categories (although I thought it deserved one in Sound).  What this tells us is both of these films are well crafted works of art with outstanding performances by, at least, one actor.  But it also says that Elvis should be more of a sensory experience – with lots of interesting things to see and hear.  (Elvis alone wears more than 90 different costumes in this film and, in total, the costume designers developed more than 9000 different outfits for cast members).  I believe those conclusions are warranted – Tar tells the story through sheer dialogue and drama where Elvis is more of a visual and aural spectacle.

Elvis: The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

Moulin Rouge (01): Director/Writers (Baz Luhrmann/Craig Pearce); Production Design/Costume Design (Catherine Martin); Sound (Andy Nelson) 

The Great Gatsby (13):  Director/Writer (Baz Luhrmann); Film Editing (Jonathan Redmond/Matt Villa); Production Design/Costume Design (Catherine Martin)

Romeo + Juliet (96): Director/Writer (Baz Luhrmann/Craig Pearce); Production Design/Costume Design (Catherine Martin)

Australia (08): Director (Baz Luhrmann); Cinematography (Mandy Walker); Production Design/ Costume Design (Catherine Martin)

Mulan: Cinematography (Mandy Walker)

Forrest Gump/Philadelphia/Saving Private Ryan/Big/Cast Away/Toy Story4/A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Acting (Tom Hanks)

All of these movies are relevant, but Elvis is a direct descendant of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and your reaction to that movie will definitely color your opinion of this one!  Note that Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann often pair in movie production – they are also married). Hanks, usually a good guy, is, in this movie, someone you really don’t want to like so…

Elvis: What Others Think

This is a controversial film with inconsistent ratings from both critics and the public.  General audiences give Elvis an average rating of sixth out of our 25 general interest films, tied with Everything Everywhere All at Once, while critics have generally panned the film, placing it in the bottom quarter – a large discrepancy.  But, like I said, the different rating scales aren’t consistent so its difficult to know what is happening with this film.  Generally speaking, anything about Elvis Presley is going to generate a lot of public interest, at least among some of the older generations, and younger generations might be just a bit curious about what all the fuss is about.  I get the sense, and justifiably so, that the public was intrigued by the story and absorbed by the music, which is terrific.

Critics, on the other hand, are, once again, expecting too much.  Many of them layered on the same criticism of Tom Hanks that that they did with Nicole Kidman (in Being the Ricardos) – that the prosthetics and makeup stiffened the performance into something unrecognizable.  As I said with my review of Kidman’s movie, it is probably impossible for a big name actor to play someone with a known identity because too many preconceptions have been built up, and the performance is unlikely to satisfy them all.

I’ve also read criticism of the movie that it just doesn’t do justice to Presley himself – that it doesn’t accurately portray The King!  I find that criticism especially telling since you have to be at least my age to have any real memories of the man – he died in 1977 – and even I do not have a real clear perspective on him, nor, exactly, how he looked and behaved.  Very few of us alive now have anything other than media-filtered imagery.  So, like the criticism of Nicole Kidman’s Lucy, we are comparing the filmmakers’ vision of the man to an already-manipulated image we have learned as our ‘standard’.

All of which is to say that I don’t think we should look at any non- documentary film through the lens of ‘truth’.  It is, and always must be, only an “interpretation”, because that is all we have now.  So I prefer to evaluate the film not by how “accurately” it portrays Elvis, but rather by how effective the character and the story are in stimulating emotions.

Elvis: Special Mention

Colonel Tom Parker – I didn’t pay much attention to Elvis when he was alive, except maybe to appreciate some of his music and to recognize that he was a pop-culture icon.  So I had never heard of his manager, nor did I understand what a powerful influence he had on his “client”.  After watching the movie – which is narrated by Parker (Tom Hanks) and tells the Presley story from Parker’s point of view – I just had to do a little research on the man.  (Some of what I found is revealed in the movie and, therefore, I caution you that there are some mild spoilers coming up.  I’m OK with divulging them because I don’t think they are critical to the emotional power of the movie.  But, if you want to see the movie with an unadulterated eye, then skip the rest of this section.)

Parker was, originally, a citizen of the Netherlands.  He smuggled himself into the US when he was 18-20 (reports differ)  under circumstances that are unclear, but possibly include involvement in a murder.  He then joined the service, taking the name of the person who had recruited him, in order to hide his identity and build a new one in the US.  Although he served in the military, he was never a Colonel.  He was given that as an honorary title by a Louisiana governor who rewarded him for work done on his campaign.  After his service, he worked as a barker at a carnival in the Deep South, another way to hide his sketchy identity (see Nightmare Alley for more on this lifestyle). One way or another he worked his way up to become the leader of a traveling carnival group – a form of entertainment that even I remember as a child, but has since largely died out.  This is where the movie begins, as he “discovers” Elvis Presley.

The relationship between Presley and Parker is complex, as the movie tries to portray.  We can’t really know if the exchanges between them happen as the movie suggests, but in a series of lawsuits after Elvis died, the extent of Parker’s abuse of his client was exposed.  It does seem amazing, to me, that a manager could successfully claim rights to half of what a star like Elvis was earning.  But even so, after seeing the film, Priscilla and Jerry said that Parker was a “lovely man” and that Elvis was happy to pay him 50%.  It definitely suggests that maybe there is more going on here than we know!

Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker wasn’t recognized with an Oscar nomination, and probably shouldn’t have been, but it is one of the few times that Hanks plays the villain.  It is true that the fat-suit prosthetics and the shifting accents make it difficult to fully understand this smarmy character.  But I think that is actually by design.  Parker was hiding quite a bit and Hanks does a good job of alternating between his internal good and evil.  Since the film is told from Parker’s perspective, it is interesting to see how he evades responsibility for everything bad that happens to Elvis at the same time claiming credit for all of Presley’s successes.  Hanks deserves recognition for successfully portraying the ambiguity of this man.

Rock and Roll – Mountains of material have been written on the origins of Rock and Roll and I’m not capable of adding anything to that body of knowledge.  But anyone viewing this film should understand that what we came to call this genre of music in the 60s and 70s really had a complex history going back several decades.  

The term itself originally was a reference to the movements of a ship, but gained both sexual and spiritual connotations in the early 1900s.  It may have been used in reference to music as early as the late 1800s.  In the first decades of the 20th century, it was used in the music of Black blues musicians to refer to either dancing or sex, or both at the same time.  To this day we often refer to sex with some variation of “rolling in the hay”

The spiritual connotation also came with Black music in the sense of the gospel experience of “rocking”, something that happened when the “spirit” overcame you and your body moved in frenetic ways.  With this root in gospel music, “rock and roll” actually notes the fusion of blues and gospel styles of music, both essential components of Black culture.

While Elvis Presley did not invent Rock and Roll, he did bring it into the white mainstream.  And that may be the key to his incredible success.  He managed to fuse the two, seemingly opposed realms, of the spiritual and the sexual – the sacred and the profane – all in one attractive package, and make it acceptable to whites.  As a white boy, he brought Black culture to mainstream white consciousness.  

Elvis: Michael’s Moments

It is difficult for me to know exactly which elements of Luhrmann’s film are fact and which are “enhanced” for dramatic effect.  But, as I mentioned above, I’m not sure that matters in a movie not advertised as a documentary.  The purpose of a biopic film is not to convey a 100% accurate representation of the subject, but to portray a set of relevant feelings or impressions.  Luhrmann accomplishes that here, whether you are talking about the subject, Elvis Presley, or his antagonist, Colonel Tom Parker.

This is only Luhrmann’s sixth feature film, but it retains important elements from at least one of his earlier movies, Moulin Rouge.  Indeed, the two films were nominated in exactly the same categories except Nicole Kidman was up for Best Leading Actress in the earlier movie while Austin Butler was nominated for Best Leading Actor in Elvis. Both films showcase Luhrmann’s attention to sets, costumes, and makeup as well as the film’s sound design, cinematography, and, especially, editing.

All of these elements are combined in the first 20 minutes of the movie, which set the stage for how this movie works.  It is a kinetic display of visual back and forth tied together with a wonderful soundtrack.  In this time we flashback to Elvis’s childhood where, because his father was serving a prison sentence, the family had moved to a house they could afford in a largely black neighborhood (in Louisiana I believe) – Elvis’s identity was formed in a crucible of Black blues (in a back-alley dance hall) and, across the field, a big-tent Black Christian revival meeting, complete with gospel music.  Not only does Luhrmann reference the two foundations of rock and roll music, but he also mesmerizes us with his frenetic style.  (If you don’t like this setup, you are likely not going to enjoy the rest of this two hour and forty-minute story.)

But Luhrmann isn’t done with our history lesson.  At the forty-three minute mark, Elvis has a fight with his mother and, to resolve his emotions, he drives off in his big fifties car and heads to Beale Street.  After Parker “discovered” Elvis and scored a remarkable recording contract, the Presley family was able to acquire Graceland and they moved to the Memphis, Tennessee area.  Beale street was the center of the Black community in the greater Memphis area. In this sequence, Elvis is completely comfortable with the likes of BB King, Little Richard, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  When in emotional trouble, Elvis retreats to his black-community roots.  Luhrmann embeds the main storyline with flowing music and flashbacks to his past.

Around the sixty-nine minute mark, Elvis has already been in several movies, and the films, and his image, are beginning to tank.  But, while on the set for one of them, Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated (1968) in Presley’s hometown, Memphis.  At this point, Presley had not really been allowed to go back to his black roots – he lived in a white world now.  But in watching Mahalia Jackson sing at MLK’s funeral, Elvis began to realize what he was missing and how important it was for him to get back to “the music that made him happy.”  That realization has important consequences for the rest of the movie.

Elvis, by himself, did not create what we know as rock-and-roll music.  But an undeniable fact is that his development as an early adolescent in a nearly all-Black environment had a profound effect on his musical style.  And he was the one who effectively brought those styles into the dominant musical scene of the time. 

One of the many important messages from Elvis is the importance of maintaining and recognizing different cultures.  Yes, Rock and Roll, in the seventies and beyond, became a white and especially British enterprise, but it retained its roots in Black blues and gospel.  (Fleetwood Mac, my favorite band of all-time, was originally British and started as a blues band.  How that happened is a mystery to me, but they didn’t invent blues, they co-opted it, and like Elvis, modified it into the rock music that we all know.). Elvis, in addition to being an exploration of two important cultural personalities, is also a testament to the need to promote cultural differences at the same time that we break down our resistance to experience them.  True creativity emerges from the combination of what seem to be unrelated experiences.  Luhrmann not only serves us that message in his story, but he also delivers it in his movie style.


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