Again, the devil took him to a very high Ferris wheel and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will wear a tuxedo and sing to a Basset hound. These are the only things that help – these tablets”
There is a tendency in pretty much every film with a male protagonist that the filmmakers want us to see as heroic, to try to create parallels with the life of Jesus. That’s certainly been the case with most of the previous dramatisations of Elvis Presley’s life — he’s portrayed as a Messianic figure, come to save a fallen world with the power of rock and roll, at least when he isn’t portrayed as a dumb hick who happens to have been blessed with a talent he didn’t understand, and which he squandered while destroying his own life.
Often those two portrayals have been simultaneous ones in the same film — portraying Presley as an idiot savant who could do precisely one thing, which was being a hip-swinging rock and roll rebel, but who was otherwise not really a fully-rounded human being, not a human being at all. He was God or Devil, but what he definitely wasn’t was a human being.
Baz Luhrmann’s new film, paradoxically because it is so stylised, so obsessed with myth and story rather than with accurate portrayal of reality, comes closer than any other fictionalised portrayal I’ve seen of Elvis’ life to actually portraying the real human being, as I understand him to have been from the books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve seen. It doesn’t avoid Messianic portrayals altogether, but Elvis-as-Jesus is only the third layer of the character. The second, higher, layer, is something close to the real person as he seems to have existed. And the top layer, of course, is Captain Marvel Jr. — Luhrmann has taken Elvis’ real-life love of and identification with the character, and has used it to cast Elvis as the lead of a superhero film, which in these times of Marvel-dominance of the cinema was probably a good commercial idea as well as showing far more understanding of Elvis as a person than any of the many previous portrayals seem to.
But while Luhrmann’s Elvis is both a superhero and a nuanced human being, his Colonel Tom Parker, through whose eyes we see the whole film, is much less nuanced. He is, put simply, the literal Devil. Put slightly less simply, he is the Devil as he might have been portrayed by Orson Welles.
This is one of the few things about this film that surprised me, something that wasn’t signposted in the trailers, which otherwise gave a perfect idea of what the film was going to be like — the film is heavily intertextual, and most of the intertexts for it are given away in the trailer, but the trailer doesn’t say just how much this film is very specifically riffing on the work of Orson Welles. The Colonel’s death scene, at the very beginning of the film, evokes Citizen Kane, as do some of the shots of Graceland, but there’s also a scene in a hall of mirrors that’s clearly meant to make viewers think of The Lady of Shanghai, while there’s a Ferris wheel scene that will of course bring back memories of The Third Man (while both the Ferris wheel and the hall of mirrors are clearly appropriate for the Colonel’s carnie background). Stretching a point a bit, Tom Hanks’ fatsuit and makeup as Colonel Parker do make him look very like the real man, but they also reminded me at least of Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.
Now, this is appropriate in a lot of ways — Elvis’ life is in some ways very, very, similar to the basic story of Citizen Kane, and it’s even closer to the life of Orson Welles — a preternaturally talented young man revolutionises an entertainment medium with his early masterpieces, but gets trapped in bad contracts and grows ever fatter and more depressed, while creating occasional further masterpieces mixed with embarrassing hackwork that no artist of his stature should have to create.
So, the basic narrative of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis film can boil down to the following:
The Devil, in the form of Charles Foster Kane, comes to Freddie Freeman and offers him a proposition — he can have all the powers of Captain Marvel, and he will also be rich; he will never have to be poor or hungry again. But what he doesn’t tell Freeman is that in this Faustian pact, Freeman will have to live the life that Kane would have lived. For as long as Freddie Freeman is alive, he will be rich and powerful and beloved, but he will also suffer for Kane’s sins, becoming like the picture in Kane’s attic, and only when Freeman dies will Kane feel once again start to receive consequences for his own
This is, as one might imagine, a rather richer set of driving metaphors for the story than most Elvis biopics have used, and the result is a far better piece of filmmaking.
Which is, to be honest, something that is not normally a consideration when it comes to biopics of musicians. I have seen many of these, and I can think of precisely two music biopics that work as films — this and Love and Mercy. In every other case, you could just replace the film with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and nobody would be able to tell the difference — they’re all forcing the narrative into precisely the same structure, and mix characters reciting huge chunks of expository dialogue lifted almost word-for-word from their source material with contrived drama that bears no relation to the musician’s real life.
Now, the script for Luhrmann’s film does definitely do some of the expository dialogue stuff — so much so that I can tell exactly which books Luhrmann and his co-writers were referring to when writing the script (they seem to have read Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis, his biography of Elvis up to 1960, but not bothered with his sequel Careless Love for the post-Army years, switching instead to Alanna Nash’s The Colonel, with possibly a little of Priscilla Presley’s Elvis and Me thrown in). But where most biopics are going for realism, and so characters spouting their biographies at each other makes them seem unrealistic, Luhrmann is going for a heightened reality, both extra-diegetically in that this is an extremely stylised, cartoonish, film, and diegetically in that the entire film is the Colonel’s vision while on a morphine drip in his final hours of life. No attempt is made to pretend that if you had a film camera in Tupelo in 1940 or Memphis in 1955 or LA in 1968 or Las Vegas in 1973, what that camera would have captured is anything like what you see on screen, and so you’re not annoyed when people burst into “as you know, your father the King…” style dialogue.
So it’s successful as a film in ways that are unexpected given the genre, in that it actually is a watchable film. There are still problems which come along with the genre — a friend described it as “the longest trailer in history”, because when you’re condensing a forty-two-year life into two and three quarter hours, you’re essentially going to have to have a highlights reel rather than a narrative, and at the same time it also sags in the middle if you’re not super-invested in Elvis’ life because two and three quarter hours isn’t a long time when compared to someone’s life but it is a long time to sit still in a cinema — but it is a film that works as a piece of cinema in a way that almost all biopics just don’t.
But is it successful as a film about Elvis?
That is, of course, something that everyone will have to judge for themselves, and in order to give my own perspective, it’s best if people know where I’m coming from, because levels of Elvis fandom vary dramatically. In my case, I’m a serious Elvis fan, but Elvis isn’t one of the central fandoms in my life, and nor am I someone who makes Elvis fandom a defining factor of my identity, in the way some people are. (I was one of those people from the ages of about seven through ten, but I haven’t been for thirty-something years).
To give an idea of where I am in relation to Elvis fandom, there are roughly four lines of Elvis CDs put out by Sony, the company that now owns the rights to all Elvis’ recordings. There’s the stuff that gets heavy promotional pushes and that you find in supermarkets promoted as Christmas gifts or whatever — the latest iteration of the greatest hits compilation, those albums where they get the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to overdub new backing tracks on his old records, the various versions of his Christmas album.
Then there’s the basic back catalogue stuff that’s sold to what you might call casual fans — major albums like Elvis is Back! and the Aloha From Hawaii live album, the Sun Sessions compilations, the compilation that was done for the documentary The Searcher, that kind of thing. Stuff where if you buy it you’re definitely an Elvis fan by most standards, but you aren’t digging very deep.
Then there’s the Legacy Editions of his albums — two-to-four disc sets containing albums plus selected outtakes and studio sessions, often paired with contemporary live recordings. A typical example of these is the Legacy Edition of Elvis Today, his last wholly-studio-recorded album, which has the original release of the ten-song album, plus rough mixes of every song before the overdub sessions for the strings and horns and so on, plus a twenty-two-song bonus live album made up of the best recordings from his May/June 1975 tour. These are aimed at serious music listeners, people who are interested in hearing the creative process, but don’t necessarily want to hear every fart and burp from the sessions, just the interesting bits.
And then there’s Follow That Dream, a collectors’ label devoted only to Elvis recordings, which puts out things like a Girl Happy Sessions CD, for people who think “Do The Clam” or “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” are such masterpieces that they need to hear a comprehensive audio document of the sessions for that film soundtrack, or a Fun in Acapulco Sessions 3-CD set, for anyone who desperately wants nineteen takes of “The Bullfighter Was a Lady” (sadly that set only contains one take of “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car”).
I’m solidly a Legacy Editions-level fan. I find Elvis’ working process fascinating, and love hearing his interplay with musicians (and for most of his career he was working with some of the best musicians in the US, whether the Nashville A-Team, the Wrecking Crew, the American Sound studio group or his own TCB Band), but only when he’s engaged with the material, and I don’t really want to hear the “Yoga is as Yoga Does” sessions any time soon. I own about twenty Elvis films on DVD, but only ever really watch about five of them, and would generally rather stick on Elvis on Tour or That’s The Way it Is than any of the narrative films.
So this means I have, I believe, a good grounding in Elvis’ career, enough to appreciate what Luhrmann is doing, but enough distance that I’m not going to be mortally offended by choices that are made to tell the story better. I’m the kind of fan who knows that when Elvis talks to “Glen” in the rehearsals for his 1969 shows that that’s inaccurate because Glen Hardin didn’t join the TCB Band until the second set of Vegas shows, but who can’t remember off the top of his head who the 1969 piano player was, and who appreciates Hardin getting a shout-out anyway, rather than being annoyed that Larry Muhoberac (I looked him up) doesn’t get namechecked.
From this perspective, the first thing that needs to be talked about is Austin Butler’s performance. Now, straight away, there are things that are immediately noticeable — Butler simply does not look like Elvis. This is not Butler’s fault — Elvis was a preternaturally attractive human being, so much so that even I, someone who both has no visual aesthetic sense at all and who is extremely straight, a combination which usually means that I literally cannot tell what it is that people find attractive in men, at least see that about Elvis even if I don’t find him attractive myself. Elvis also had a natural charm and magnetism that Butler simply does not have, but which again almost no performers have.
I’ve seen several people joke on Twitter, “wow, he really does look exactly like Shakin’ Stevens” and… frankly, yeah, he looks quite a lot like Shakin’ Stevens, a man who first rose to prominence playing Elvis in a stage musical, and who copied a great deal of his style from Elvis, but who was fundamentally a more ordinary-looking person. That’s about the best you can hope for in a situation like this, though.
Vocally, though, he has Elvis’ speaking voice down eerily close. He gets the nuances, not just of Elvis’ voice, but of how it changed from one period of his life to another. He manages to do as good an impersonation of Elvis’ speaking voice as I’ve heard, and to give a decent acting performance in that voice, not just do the impersonation.
His singing voice is not quite that close — they use Butler’s voice for scenes set in the 1950s where Elvis is singing, because there were no multitracks for those sessions from which his voice could be isolated. For sixties and seventies scenes, they use the real performances. Now, Butler doesn’t sound exactly like Elvis vocally, but he does sound like a fairly decent Elvis impersonator, like Ronnie McDowell (the man who did the Elvis vocals for most film biopics and TV series about Elvis in the seventies, eighties, and nineties) or Jimmy “Orion” Elvis (who was the source for most of the “Elvis is alive” conspiracy theories, as he performed in an Elvis-esque costume, with a mask covering his face, and publicity that strongly hinted he was the real Elvis who had faked his own death). No-one who’s hugely familiar with the records will mistake him for Elvis, but very casual listeners easily could.
But what really got me is how well he managed to get Elvis’ microexpressions and body language down. Large chunks of this film are recreations of live performances I know very well — there are a lot of shot-for-shot recreations of bits of the 68 Comeback Special, That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour. I’m extremely familiar with those (especially That’s The Way It Is, which is a concert documentary up there with The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense) and Butler nails every single gesture, every micro-expression, every bit of body language — and does so without it looking like he’s recreating something. It’s so close and natural, it makes me think of, of all things, Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which a writer sets out to write the whole of Don Quixote, word for word, identical to the book Cervantes wrote, but as an original piece from his own imagination. (The whole film has a Borgesian quality to it, in fact, in ways it’s hard for me to pin down in a relatively short review).
I’ve mentioned Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic, before, and that’s a film which has a number of similarities to this one, but one of them is that both have central performances that capture the person being imitated spookily well, but so spookily that anyone who is not a big fan of the central character won’t realise how good it is, because it just looks like naturalistic acting. John Cusack is Brian Wilson in the eighties sections of Love and Mercy, and in the same way Austin Butler is Elvis at points. I’ve seen several people talking about this as an Oscar-worthy performance, and it is, but I don’t think it will get the recognition it deserves. Because if you see Butler as Elvis in a jumpsuit goofing around on stage doing karate moves, or dancing to the drummer, you just think “that’s someone doing Elvisy stuff” — it’s what you expect from a performance by someone playing Elvis. It’s only if you’re intimately familiar with the footage being imitated that you think “ah, yes, and now he’s going to gesture with his little finger” and then see him gesture with his little finger, or whatever.
I think what Butler does at points is comparable in his use of facial microexpressions and details of body language to what Tatiana Maslany does in Orphan Black. There’s no higher praise possible.
But I do have some critiques of the film, and one of them connects to the other major performer in the film, so let’s talk about Tom Hanks for a bit. Now, I’ve seen Hanks’ performance come in for some criticism, and I think for the most part that’s rather undeserved. Hanks isn’t playing the real Colonel Tom Parker, but he is absolutely doing a good job of playing a real-life embodiment of absolute evil, someone very, very, different from the kind of character with which he has made his name in the past. The accent is unrealistic at points, but it’s meant to be how the Colonel remembered events while on morphine, and it’s entirely plausible that he would remember himself as speaking with a stronger accent than he really did.
My problem, rather, is with the fat-suit he wears. Quite simply, we should not be making thin people look like fat people, rather than just casting fat people in those roles. It makes sense that they do this with Butler at the very end of the film — Elvis’ weight changed dramatically over the decades he was in the public eye, and you can’t have the same actor play him at every weight without some form of prosthetics. But it’s disrespectful to actual fat people to cast thin people in roles where they have to be made up as fat throughout.
I have to admit that I couldn’t think of anyone of the appropriate size who could have played the part and who was well-known enough to be cast in the role — which is a problem in itself — but then I was talking on the phone with my ex, who mentioned John Goodman, and Goodman would actually have been perfect casting for the role. Not only is he the right body type already, but he is very, very, capable of playing Satanic characters who can go from being utterly charming sales people with the gift of gab to being utter monsters — his performances in Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are very much the kind of performance Hanks is giving.
I suspect that the studio insisted on a star of Hanks’ calibre before approving the film, and he does do a fine job, but it’s a shame. It didn’t spoil the film for me though.
But it adds to a general air of… awkwardness… around size and body type in the film, which I felt most keenly when watching the actor cast as Big Mama Thornton. Willie Mae Thornton was very fat, and that was a defining part of her presence, and also a big reason why she was never as successful as she deserved to be, and the actor cast in that role simply doesn’t look anything like her. Oddly, the actor cast as Sister Rosetta Tharpe does look quite like Thornton, and the problem could have been solved by swapping the casting around — Tharpe was also fat for most of her life, but not in the same defining way as Thornton was, and she was relatively slender during the 1940s.
And that leads into the other major issue I have with the film, race — and here I think there were absolutely no good options for how to deal with this, and Luhrmann chooses the least bad option.
Any honest film about Elvis has to deal with the perception that he stole Black people’s music. Now, that perception is simply false — there is an argument to be made that he was culturally appropriative, but even that’s more nuanced than one might expect, but the common Twitter take is that Elvis just stole a bunch of Black people’s songs, which is flat-out untrue.
But what is true is that a lot of Black musicians influenced him a great deal — musicians portrayed in the film, like Mahalia Jackson, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B.B. King, Little Richard, Arthur Crudup, Rufus Thomas, and Fats Domino, and musicians who are not portrayed in the film like the Ink Spots, Roy Hamilton, and Chuck Berry. (A tiny bit of silent footage of Berry is seen in the film, but he’s not named and I don’t think we hear any of his music, though I could be misremembering).
Now, the film makes what I think is the correct choice to portray that influence, and indeed to overemphasise it to an extent — watching the film you would think that the only music Elvis liked was Black blues and gospel, when in fact he was a voracious listener to all kinds of music, and loved what is euphemistically called Southern Gospel (by which is meant gospel made by white people), country music (especially Red Foley and the Louvin Brothers), mainstream pop singers like Dean Martin and Kay Starr, and the light opera of Mario Lanza. None of that is mentioned in the film except in the most roundabout of ways, but I think that’s a reasonable position.
The problem is, it’s still a film centred around a white man, and he’s the protagonist of the story, so all the Black characters are relegated to the fringes of the story. On top of that, Luhrmann is a very stylised, hyper-real, filmmaker, and so his portrayals of Black culture tend to caricature and possibly almost to minstrelsy, in the same way as, say, the Black characters in The Blues Brothers (another film I love which has a well-meaning but problematic attitude to Black culture and music, and to which this also bears some resemblance).
Most of the Black characters aren’t characters at all — they’re just there as musical influences, which is fair enough as I think there are in total ten characters who count as characters in any real way at all — Elvis, the Colonel, Elvis’ parents, Priscilla, Steve Binder (the producer of the 68 Comeback Special), Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers Snow, Senator Jim Eastland and B.B. King. And there’s a huge gap between Elvis, the Colonel, and Elvis’ parents and the other five characters. By being given big musical sequences, the Black characters are still given more screen time and more characterisation than anyone other than the Colonel who didn’t have the surname Presley.
But still, this does mean that these figures are marginalised in the story of a white man. And the problem becomes worse with B.B. King, the only Black character to get a significant speaking role. The nature of a film like this means that every character becomes either an antagonist (like the white supremacist Senator Eastland, or Hank Snow, who is rather unfairly portrayed here) or a source of emotional support for the protagonist, and in the case of King, who knew Elvis in his early years when he was just starting out, that means his role is to give him a couple of pep talks, which basically turns him into what Spike Lee refers to as a “Magical Negro”, the Black character who is better and wiser than the white person he advises and solves the white character’s important problems.
Now, again, I see no better possibility for dealing with this while still doing a film about Elvis. You have the choice of either not acknowledging Black musicians at all, or of marginalising them and thus reproducing in part the injustices that led to them being marginalised in pop culture in the first place. As I know all too well from doing my own podcast, it is literally impossible to do even the most well-intentioned look at the major pop-cultural figures of rock music history, and comment on the factors that led to the rise of white stars well above the Black musicians who influenced them, without reproducing that historical injustice at least somewhat. All one can do is be aware of that, and I think the film does, at least as much as any mainstream Hollywood film can.
The final issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t engage, at all, with the fact that Priscilla Presley was only fourteen when Elvis, who was twenty-four, started dating her. Now, I can completely understand the desire not to touch that with a bargepole, because whatever excuses one makes, the fact is that this is what we would now call grooming, and it’s the single most distasteful and reprehensible thing about Elvis’ life (and something I’m going to have to try to deal with myself in an upcoming podcast episode). People aren’t defined by their worst actions any more than they are by their best, and I can see how it would both completely unbalance the film to deal with it and it would cause more than a little discomfort to Priscilla (who is still alive and was by all accounts very involved in the film, and who doesn’t from her public statements consider herself to have been abused, which makes the issue all the thornier), but given that part of the point of the film seems to have been to rehabilitate Elvis’ reputation in the social media age, and the two big problems with that reputation are “he stole Black people’s music” and “he was a paedophile”, I think it would have been much better to face the issue head on.
This is another thing that has to be dealt with when dealing with most of the major male stars of the middle of the last century, and is sadly another way that any film positioning one of them as the protagonist is bound to reproduce social injustices. Real people are complicated and messy and do awful, even unforgivable, things which are accepted in their society, in a way that isn’t — that can’t be — true of protagonists of this kind of narrative.
All of which sounds like I think the film was bad. I very much don’t. I think it’s a film that appeals more to actual Elvis fans than it will to non-fans, but I think non-fans will get some enjoyment out of it. I went to see the film twice, the second time with someone who’s not a fan but who was interested. She enjoyed it but got a little restless around the two hour mark, and some of the criticisms I’ve made affected her more than they do me, but she was still glad she saw it.
For me, the thing that the film gets very, very, very right, which almost overwhelms all my other criticisms of it, is the way it — for the first and only time in one of these fictionalised versions of Elvis’ life — portrays Elvis as a creative artist, not merely as some sort of passive vessel through which the spirit of rock and roll moved or something, and in particular the way it portrays the Las Vegas shows not as some sort of descent into terrible music, but as a culmination of Elvis’ creative life. The scenes of him pulling together the arrangements, directing the musicians, are astonishing. Some of them are repurposed from documentary footage — a lot of the Vegas years film is shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour, sometimes occasionally with a sneaky bit of real footage thrown in for a couple of frames — while other bits aren’t things I recognise, but absolutely have the ring of real behaviour.
What you get from this film is the same reading of the Vegas years that I have — that even while everything in Elvis’ personal life was deteriorating, even while he was being forced to play far more shows than he wanted to play, and was losing interest in the performance side of things, he was absolutely in control of the band, and of his music, and was making music he loved. Watching Butler as Elvis interacting with the actor playing Ronnie Tutt, the film perfectly replicating the way that Tutt took direction from Elvis’ movements, is an absolute joy to behold.
And then there’s the ending, and this sums up what I think the film got very, very right. There’s a piece of footage of Elvis on his last tour, singing “Unchained Melody”, which I have spoken about a lot in the past. It’s a bit of footage most Elvis fans know, but few outside the fandom are aware of. I’ve written about it before on here, but I linked to it on my podcast’s Twitter account in a thread in February. I won’t reproduce the whole thread here, but it’s about how Elvis was clearly physically broken but still giving his all in the performance and showing the utter triumph of overcoming his weakened body to make great music. I ended the thread with “I honestly think that if the Elvis estate want to make Elvis seem relevant to anyone under about sixty, that is the footage they should be using. Like I say, it’s like Johnny Cash doing “Hurt”. And I get chills every time I see it.”
A couple of months after I tweeted that, the trailer for Luhrmann’s film dropped, and it used that performance in the soundtrack. And then in the film itself, to end the film they reproduce the first half of that performance with Butler, then cut away to some archive footage of the real Elvis, then cut back to the end of that performance, footage of the real man the film has been about. It works astonishingly in the film, and it’s exactly the choice I would have made.
And that, ultimately, is why I’ve focused so much on the things I wouldn’t have done here. Because a lot of the choices this film makes are exactly the ones I would have made if I were a big-budget filmmaker. The film is so laser-focused on my personal interests that I can’t be objective about it — Orson Welles! Seventies Elvis! Old superhero comics! Sister Rosetta Tharpe!
It’s the best possible film I can imagine being made about its subject. It’s a flawed film about a flawed man living in a flawed society, and its flaws are those that come from making a film about that topic at all. I’ve certainly been guilty of similar flaws in my own podcasts and writing on Elvis (not the same flaws, because they’re different media, and there’s no such thing as a story outside of the medium in which it’s told, which shapes everything, but comparable ones).
As for Elvis himself… He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?