Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis takes place in the realm of comic books and Greek myths. It takes place in a world that contains superheroes and their worthy adversaries, where the downfall of a great and powerful man can be attributed to the machinations of a single nemesis. Our caped hero represents goodwill, love, and peace among men. Our grotesque villain represents self-interest and greed. Surrounding these two men are faceless masses whose only function is to be rescued, if only from boredom and prudishness. Elvis is fun to watch in the way that simplistic narratives often are. As a film about human beings, it almost fails.
The film opens with Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, on his deathbed in 1997, reflecting on how the world will remember him. In its way, his opening monologue recalls Humbert Humbert appealing to the imagined jury in Nabokov’s Lolita: Parker acknowledges that he has been accused of exploiting and even inadvertently causing the death of the world’s most beloved performer. The purpose of his narration is to protest his innocence; he is, in a way, asking the audience to absolve him, even as cackles punctuate his lines.
It is easy to see why Luhrmann chose this framing for his biopic of Elvis Presley. In many ways, the story of Elvis is the story of his manager, the opportunistic carnival barker who hitched his wagon to Elvis’ in 1955. For the next two decades, Parker became responsible for nearly all of Elvis’ business decisions, from the films he made to songs he recorded to the ocean of merchandise that accompanied these properties. Not everyone knows the extent of Parker’s influence on Elvis’ image and career. It would be impossible to make a film about Elvis without Parker, and yet, as I watched Elvis, I found myself longing for just that.
It’s not just that Tom Hanks’ performance as Parker is unsuccessful. The combination of a fat suit, prosthetics, age makeup, and an attempted Dutch accent mask his acting choices. The problem is that Austin Butler as Elvis is fantastic. Yet, to portray Parker as a supervillain, Elvis must be both hero and victim. These roles further obscure a subject whose humanity is already so elusive. The scenes where Butler is on stage as Elvis are electrifying. He captures perfectly the particular combination of smirking intentionality and raw instinct that made Elvis unique. Offstage, he is even better; even through layers of self-tanner and rhinestones, Butler never veers into caricature. The Elvis he portrays is both stunningly naïve and prematurely world-weary.
Though Butler is only 30, he is particularly affecting in the scenes where his character is approaching middle age, plagued by humiliation and dissatisfaction. It is a credit to Butler’s skills that he can give Elvis any interiority at all. The script is much more focused on who Parker thinks Elvis is. Parker tells us his theory on why his client loves performing or how he imagines Elvis feels about world events. Even Elvis’ divorce is filtered through the lens of Parker’s interpretation.
With so much focus on Parker, there is barely time to pull on any other threads that may help explain Elvis’ unraveling in the film’s final third. We hear a soundbite of one review of one of Elvis’ films, but the Elvis doesn’t seem interested in the way that more than a decade of critical derision affected his already fragile ego. We hear from other characters about Elvis’ elaborate spending, and we are given a brief visual of his gun collection. Still, there is little depiction of the dangerous mania that began relatively early in his career and came to define the end of his life.
Elvis’ doctor, George Nichopoulos (played here by Tony Nixon), who in the first eight months of 1977 alone had prescribed Elvis over 10,000 doses of amphetamines, barbiturates, sleeping pills, and other narcotics (he later had his license revoked), is not given any lines and functions more as a minion of Parker. In Luhrmann’s world, Parker is the only one concerned with making money off Elvis: it is as if the entire violent churn of capitalism is contained within this one man.
In many ways, Luhrmann is the wrong filmmaker to adapt Elvis’ life. His ambitious project, which has a two-hour and 39-minute runtime, careens through years with the aid of animated montages (we skip almost the entire 1960s with a dismissive title card that reads ELVIS GOES HOLLYWOOD) and overthought visual metaphors (we get it, Elvis is a sideshow!). Luhrmann’s obsessive attention to aesthetic detail serves as a love letter to Elvis’ image – the very thing any film about his life should be attempting to puncture. Luhrmann excels at beauty and exuberance in his films, and this comes in handy during the performance sequences. Unfortunately, he is utterly disinterested in nuance, so his actors are on their own when it comes to portraying any real human relationship.
This fault is particularly evident when exploring Elvis’ relationship with the Black musicians who inspired him throughout his career. Luhrmann tries to extol their influence without dwelling on the implications of a white musician achieving mammoth success with their songs. Luhrmann’s surface-level interest in Elvis’ politics comprises many of the film’s weak points. Luhrmann transforms the famous 1956 concert in Jacksonville, Florida, into a moment of shocking rebellion against segregation (the reality was more like a prank) and presents the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as catalysts for artistic rebirth in Elvis’ career.
Luhrmann is preoccupied, understandably, with situating Elvis within his historical context. In doing so, however, he discards the more interesting story: that Elvis, through a combination of debilitating addiction, Parker’s schemes, and other influences, largely ceded any opportunity to participate in the seismic cultural change that was occurring outside Graceland’s gates.
Probably the best way to appreciate Elvis is as a work of pure empathy. The film’s most touching moment is its depiction of Elvis’ final concert in 1977, with Butler replicating footage of a heavy, visibly ill Elvis singing “Unchained Melody” at a piano. Appreciation for this Elvis is rare, and Luhrmann sets this scene with great compassion. For most of the film’s action, Luhrmann’s evident reverence for his subject inhibits his ability to portray Elvis’ complexity. In these final moments, he uses this reverence to pull off a tremendous feat: suddenly, his comic-book movie becomes a very human tragedy.
Elvis is far from a complete triumph, but its high points (primarily Butler’s acting) are high enough to make it worth seeing. Fans of Elvis, in particular, will be breathlessly rewarded with the songs, visuals, and showmanship they already love – this, of course, being the actual project of any musical biopic. Still, it’s hard not to view Elvis as a missed opportunity to liberate Elvis from the constraints of myth and look frankly at his genius, his flaws, and his addiction (something Elvis also attributes largely to Parker, in a way that is not only ahistorical but irresponsible).
It is also a missed opportunity to really do what Elvis promises: examine the relationship between Elvis and Parker and how it exemplified the most mercenary aspects of the midcentury entertainment industry and yet, in many ways, represented the most significant relationship in both men’s lives. The carnival imagery that pervades the film is probably more accurate than Luhrmann realizes.
Audiences may leave Elvis feeling as if they’ve learned something about the man, or at least that they’ve been treated to something resembling an emotional tour-de-force, only to realize that it was only an illusion. They have been left, as Parker would say, with nothing but the smile on their faces.