Baz Luhmann’s Elvis contains a slew of stunningly-produced images and songs which evoke Presley’s talents as both a performer and musician.
(Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Warner Bros.)
Elvis Presley lived a life marked by many American contrasts. His on-stage dancing was so outlandish that it almost violated the Ten Commandments. His support for Nixon’s War on Drugs was a major factor, as well as his struggle with substance abuse. Born in poverty, he became one of the most prominent men on earth. His tour schedule was a death sentence. He loved to create music.
His musical output represented the diversity of American culture. Elvis’s oeuvre spans every genre of 20th-century American music with the possible exception of jazz. His rockabilly hit “Blue Moon”, as well as country songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” were his breakthrough. He also reimagined classic country tunes such “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. Elvis sang some of the century’s most moving pop ballads, from “Always On My Mind” to “Hurt.” His 30-track Gospel album is a favorite of the Pope’s.
Elvis Presley CDs were my soundtrack growing up. My mother was an Elvis fanatic and my maternal grandparents insisted on a trip to Graceland for the family. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis was the first movie I saw.
Elvis follows Presley, played by Austin Butler, from his childhood in a Mississippi shotgun house through his grueling final days. This nearly three-hour-long film is told by Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was an illegal immigrant from Holland played by Tom Hanks, who has a thick, slender, and sexy suit.
Parker, born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, ingratiated himself with Elvis when Presley was a rising star at Sun Studio in Memphis. Hanks’s Parker narrates the story of Elvis’s career, from the controversial Southern concerts of the 1950s to his foray into Hollywood, the 1968 Comeback Special, and the world-beating concert series at Las Vegas’s International Hotel through his death in 1977. The film shows the tension between Presley’s outrageous, almost obscene on-stage personality and his conservative Pentecostal roots. As Elvis, Butler’s Elvis dangles and swoops on stage and thrusts his groin, women in the audience gasp, gasp, and helplessly scream. Religious authorities are shocked. He says that he enjoys performing Gospel music off-stage, and it takes him back to where he belongs.
Elvis highlights other contrasts in Presley’s life. Presley’s eight year run insipid Hollywood musicals portrays him as a climber. His performance of “Unchained Melody”, which he can barely lift, at the end of the movie is an example of an artist who finally finds himself.
Luhrmann emphasizes the influence of black music on Elvis’s career, showing scenes of Presley interacting with Little Richard, B.B. King and his black contemporaries. Contemporary critics believe that Elvis “took” some aspects of black music and culture, and sold them to white audiences that were too prejudiced to enjoy the same songs and sounds from black artists. Elvis is a black artist, it’s clear. Elvis’ early songs, including “That’s All Right”, “Hound Dog” and “Mystery Train”, combined a country sound with elements drawn from the black blues and hymns.
Several times in the film, black artists are depicted singing a song moments before Presley sings the same song on stage. It is implied that Elvis may have been laundering songs and other styles.
Each of these scenes is inserted in the movie to please progressive critics. Luhrmann seeks to appease them by suggesting that Elvis “appropriated” black music, without making Elvis a villain. Presley, played by Butler, is humble and kind-hearted so it doesn’t feel malicious. This trope does not diminish Elvis Presley’s talent as a performer.
Austin Butler delivers an impressive performance. His performance captures Elvis’s charm, boyishness, command of stage, facial expressions, speech patterns, stop-and go smile, and gravely Southern accent. Butler’s stage persona is reminiscent of Elvis’s charm and sex appeal, which have been admired by American audiences for many decades.
The director Luhrmann’s artist chops, on display in TheGreat Gatsby and MoulinRouge, carry over to Elvis. Every scene in the movie is beautifully colored, adding to its sensory appeal. Luhrmann is a master of detail, with the attention to details that Butler wears in his tan, flushed face, as well as the matching jumpsuits and Graceland’s kitschy elegance. The movie gives viewers a glimpse of what it was like to see Elvis Presley live, with its rich colors, meticulous costuming and musical numbers.
The movie’s emphasis on Tom Hanks is the most problematic. It is irritating that he attempts to imitate a Dutch accent. This accent does not sound as Colonel Parker. He had a slight lisp, but it is nothing like Hanks’ cartoonish voice. It sounds like an animated villain with his strange cadence, word choices and cadence. The film ends with the audience wanting more from the King of Rock and Roll and less about the con artist who drove him to his death.
Baz Luhmann’s is more of a slideshow than a movie, with a barrage brilliantly created images and songs that recall Presley’s talents as an entertainer and musician. There is more Colonel Parker here than anyone could want. But there’s not enough Elvis, the man who bought his friends Cadillacs and made his Tennessee home with a shooting range, a stable and struggled for the love of his life. There is plenty of Elvis and Butler’s brilliant performance to make it worth a visit to the theatre for this biography of an American icon.
about the author
John Hirschauer is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow. Fellow at National Review and a staff writer at RealClear.