Elvis: The Man, The Legend, The Manager?
Tom Hanks (under obese makeup) plays Colonel Tom Parker, the enigmatic manager who shepherded Elvis into the stratosphere, in an astounding performance only slightly less slimy than Jabba The Hutt. Parker’s constant narration keeps justifying how he “made” Elvis rather than “sponged” off him. Does maverick filmmaker Luhrmann feel that Parker was getting a bad rap in modern society, and his venal methods needed to be humanized? Because, let me assure you, I was of the generation that just missed the Elvis craze, and Elvis’s manager means even less to me, occupying not one iota of brain space, as surely as he doesn’t occupy the thoughts of a whole generation of short attention span asshats who wouldn’t know Peter Grant or Brian Epstein or Troy Carter if their music careers depended on it. So why frame the whole movie around Parker?
Maybe Luhrmann is counting on the populace having forgotten Parker as a real life figure, as he and his co-writers (Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner) turn Parker into the caricature of everything we suspect about leech managers, yet evoke our sympathies when they reveal what a pathetic and rudderless man Parker was, with no background, no country, no friends – hell, he wasn’t even a colonel; we’re manipulated to feel that his exploitation of Elvis Presley is justifiable due to his psychological need to attach himself to something familial. The dramatic license is draped over this movie so hard, it looks like an octopus strangling its prey.
And Parker’s story – like that octopus – overshadows the legend of Elvis that this movie is trying to purvey. For example: see how long I spent talking about Elvis’s fucking MANAGER?
Austin Butler (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD) is Elvis—I mean… Austin Butler IS Elvis. This 31-year-old hound dog embodies the innocence, the charisma, the pathos, the moves, the swagger, the sex… The movie’s shortcomings are far removed from Austin Butler. Luhrmann FOUND his Elvis… he just couldn’t find the story to drape around The King’s shoulders like a sequined cape, rather than a hungry octopus.
Life events blaze before our eyes: young Elvis attending gospel meetings, spying black folks singing that debbil rock and roll, interactions with dad Vernon (John Roxburgh), the death of mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), marrying Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), in and out of military service, touring and pills, firing guns and making movies), with Parker and Elvis constantly butting heads over either pleasing the establishment or fooling them into accepting the “white boy with black hips.”
ELVIS is filmed beautifully, directed creatively, but it loses the essence of the era it is trying to convey when it smashes in hip hop songs and filmic techniques that take us out of the times. For example – there is a medley of Elvis songs, interspersed with raw versions of black people singing them (excellent storytelling and filmmaking choice!) – and then there is a scene of a black woman singing Hound Dog integrated with a hip hop beat… FUCK THAT!
Another example of poor judgment is how the movie starts throwing in modern tics (glaring Taratino titles, Dutch angles, smash-pans and stressed filmstock) while its early sequences capture a reminiscence of 50s filmic techniques, with split screens and Kodachrome fuzz. So after hitting us with bombastic filmmaking, when the actual impactful elements of Elvis the performer are unleashed onto an unsuspecting public… they don’t seem so mighty. How can a modern audience grasp the heady sensual outrage when Elvis shook his pelvis, if the movie has already worn out its sensationalism in the movie-MAKING itself? In trying to convey Elvis’s dynamism onstage being so stimulating to the people of the era that it spurred women to unbidden orgasm, the filmmakers ironically left themselves nowhere to go by shooting their load so early with the snazzy filmmaking, having over-stimulated our senses into apathy.
And of course, we can’t watch any biopic these days without WALK HARD entering our thoughts whenever filmic shorthand is used, as when Elvis’s bandmates introduce him to drugs. Or when a person turns into a superstar with time compression, by representing how they got people to dance on the strength of one song at a sock hop. On the other hand, this legendary man DID set panties aflame with his electrifying performances – there must have been one crossover gig where it went from plain excitement to demagogue frenzy. But it’s all Dewey Cox by now…
If only the whole movie emulated the Las Vegas International Hotel sequence: not only recreating the iconic performance from 1970’s ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT IS, but adding another dimension, illustrating the relationship between talented-yet-naïve performer and sincere-yet-predatory manager, in a glorious juxtaposition of simultaneous winning/losing. While Elvis is onstage performing Suspicious Minds (“We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out / Because I love you too much, baby…”) Parker is inking a deal with the hotel owner – on a napkin, no less! – for 5 years and 5 million. This duplicitous act is literally carried out right under Elvis’s nose, after Parker had promised Elvis that he would send him on a world tour, and NOT tie him up in a residency. (We know this sequence of events never happened in this way, but this is what “dramatic license” should be used for – making things dramatic, not arbitrarily adding wrong facts to a real person’s life.)
And just like Hanks’s manager in THAT THING YOU DO, where we imagined horns growing from nice Mr. White’s big forehead as he demanded the master tapes, we see the horns on Parker’s temples as he evilly jokes about the 5 mil: “That is what my boy would expect… Now… what are you going to pay ME?” (Throughout his career with Elvis, Parker took 50%! Why are we humanizing this black hole scum again?) The Hotel Manager would write on the napkin, “all debts cancelled, plus lifetime credit at the hotel,” adding, “You do whatever you want, Colonel, as long as that boy stays on that stage!”
And under this plotting of his life pathway, there is Austin Butler, singing: “We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out,” resplendent in his bellbottom high-collar diamond-studded whites, pulling the greatest Elvis impersonation since Kurt Russell (ELVIS, 1979). Alternately looking exactly like Kurt and Elvis in so many shots we just give up and perceive only Elvis Presley. (Matter of fact, there are montages where footage of the real Presley is mixed in with Butler, and only a keen eye will catch him.)
And as the chorus repeats and repeats, growing in intensity yet going nowhere, like some ominous Shepard-Risset glissando – “We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out” – Elvis is oblivious, yet inadvertently singing his future. And with the last line – what are we meant to think? “Because I love you too much…” – that Parker loved Elvis so much (or at least the income he generated) that he was caught in as much of a trap as Elvis was – that he couldn’t walk out either, on threat of ruination.
The ending sequence is tear-jerking. Butler starts the song Unchained Melody on piano, and there is a flashback to him as a young boy (a smart device used throughout the movie – intercutting between the current rendition of the song and its roots on where Elvis heard it/was inspired by it). When the shot cuts back to Elvis… it really IS Elvis!
Elvis Aaron Presley. Under a career montage, we see The King forcing out that song through a drug-addled haze, and yet retaining his distinctive vocal prowess. The star power and the tragedy hit us like a hurricane – knowing this was the end of his life (a few days later he would be dead), it is enough to drive us weeping into home base.
The movie had wound down to the point where Parker was openly threatening and scheming against Elvis and father Vernon (who tried to manage him), and besides revealing what a pathetic husk of a man Parker was, a citizen of no country, a man without a friend, Parker’s machinations had become a bad taste in our mouths, so the final scene of Elvis is a bittersweet uplift, and yet a reminder that all legends must surely… deal with managers who would be forgotten if it weren’t for directors shoving their unkempt stories in our faces— Jesus Christ, Baz! – What were you THINKING?!