Elvis Presley is an American icon. Regardless of how you feel about The King, you know his name. You know his style through every costume shop’s Halloween version. You know his music from its indelible presence in the American musical lexicon. Yet still, you may not know his story. Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis movie is the first to be this honest and compassionate about the life of Elvis Presley.
Hollywood tried to share Elvis Presley’s story time and time again. Kurt Russell him, Jonathan Rhys Meyers played him, and Michael Shannon played him poorly. This time, Austin Butler played him with more passion and realism than ever before in the new Elvis movie.
Elvis Presley, the man not the myth, was the product of the American experience. A white boy in a black neighborhood was raised to believe he was no better than anyone else. The music of the world he lived in was as diverse as the people. White country, black blues, and gospel. Presley himself is a tapestry of the American south. No other place in the world could create Elvis Presley.
The film, Elvis, tracks the backstory of this boy turned icon, but never allows the audience to forget where he came from because he never did. At a mid-point in the film, as the American political scene found new boiling points in the 1960s, Elvis felt a certain responsibility to connect with a hurting country. The sequence around the 1968 Comeback Special showcases Presley’s attempt to be more than an icon, but be a friend to his fans when they needed him most. This focus keeps the myth at bay as it humanizes Presley in a way no other retelling ever has.
As the story unfolds the myth becomes less significant leaving the viewing audience with a man’s struggle for connection. His most loyal colleague, to a fault, is actually our narrator, Colonel Tom Parker, played very well by Tom Hanks. This character is the background of Elvis Presley’s entire career. Presley himself believed Parker to be a kind of father to him. The Elvis myth was built by Parker and Elvis, the man, suffered for it. As Parker’s greed and abuses increased, the myth grew and Presley’s well-being faded out of importance.
Not a Colonel, Tom, or Parker
The harsh reality of Parker’s presence was not public knowledge until after Elvis’ death. Elvis is the first Presley biopic to thoughtfully place Parker in context with the history of the icon. He didn’t mean to become a sleazeball, he was The Snowman – the promoter. Not a manager with a creative vision, but a profiteer hosting the greatest show on earth.
The film reveals that Colonel Tom Parker was illegally living in the United States. The film explains, that his need to never leave the country prevented Presley from a global tour he desperately wanted. Butler’s performance of a fictionalized breakdown over the revealing truth of Parker’s identity is striking. Singing the “Suspicious Minds” intro about being caught in a trap finds new meaning as Parker’s decades-long lie is too much to face. In trying to get his piece of the American Dream Parker found a way to steal it from Elvis.
Our unreliable narrator, explains that he did not kill Elvis, but our love for him did. Asking for far more than the man could give. Maybe Parker did see it that way. The film shapes around Parker’s non-linear retelling making Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic storytelling style more intentional and character-driven.
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Baz Luhrmann is known as Hollywood’s most eccentric and indulgent filmmaker. The style of his films always reaches into chaotic energy at times that serves the story, but can also feel like a really long music video. Presley’s style of dancing, performing and even clothing style all match Luhrmann’s flamboyant nature. While some of his films feel distracted by the frenzy, Elvis is the first to have this approach feel fitting to the story. This is by far one of Luhrmann’s best films.
The film itself is being celebrated by Elvis Presley fans because it feels the most human. In the film, Elvis expresses to his wife Priscilla that he would like to win an Academy Award, to be taken more seriously. Elvis never made a film that would put him in this category, but now his story is Oscar-worthy. Many Hollywood analysts have pitched that Butler, Hanks, Luhrmann, and the film all deserve recognition come award season. If only Elvis could see how seriously they all took his story, how they celebrated him, and how this film is the Oscar moment he always dreamed of. This industry never ignored him, but now they value him with new more heartfelt appreciation than ever before.
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