In the 1920’s, a Dutch carnival barker illegally entered the United States intent on making his fortune. Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk took on the name of Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), even serving in the U.S. military, later receiving the honorary title of Colonel for his campaign work for Louisiana’s governor, a former country singer. Parker had transitioned from carnival work to music promotion and, keeping his ear to the ground, discovered an unusual talent in the mid-50’s. By procuring a buy-out of the man’s contract with Sun Records by the much larger RCA label, Parker was in prime position to manage America’s biggest rock ‘n roll sensation, “Elvis.”
Laura's Review: B+
Baz Luhrmann’s razzle dazzle filmmaking excesses have never been to all tastes but he’s finally found a subject that suits his style. With “Elvis,” Luhrmann gives us bursts of the experiences which formed Elvis as a man and artist, rapidly cross cutting (editing by Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa) with a linear progression of Elvis’s rise as seen through the eyes of Colonel Tom Parker. It’s an explosion of visuals, often in split screens, where recurring circular motifs plunge spinning roulette wheels into the depths of Parker’s eye and Ferris wheels morph into record labels whirling on a turntable, all set to a brilliantly curated mix of contemporary and period music.
The film establishes Elvis being brought up in the black part of town by his beloved mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) while his father Vernon (Richard Roxborough) was in jail, swept up by the Black musicians and revival tent shows he lived amidst. Elvis is presented as every bit the creature of Beale Street like his friend B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola). (The recording artist on Sam Phillips’ label devoted to Black music was dismissed by Parker until he’s informed the singer is white.) Parker’s recollections focus on his touring show with Hank Snow (David Wenham), where Elvis became such a sensation, he edged Snow out of his own show; Parker’s attempt to clean up his image by having him enlist in the Army, a precursor to his bland Hollywood run; Parker’s Christmas television special, which Elvis completely subverted against Parker and his sponsors’ wishes, reviving his career in the process and Parker’s biggest betrayal with his manipulative Las Vegas residency booking.
There’s a bit of “All That Jazz” to Parker’s reflections, Luhrmann placing the aging agent on the floor of an empty casino in a hospital gown, dragging his IV pole behind him (Parker’s financial shenanigans were largely driven by his gambling debts). While Tom Hanks has made the distracting choice to use Parker’s native tongue to inform his accent, odd considering the man always tried to pass himself off as U.S. born and bred, I found it easy to forget in light of his shrewd, soulless characterization of ‘The Snowman.’ And here is the place to point out one of the film’s biggest drawbacks, and that is that aside from Parker and Elvis, none of the myriad supporting players ever fully come to life, Gladys, quickly gone from the scene, the possible exception. Elvis’s marriage makes little impact, his father and band members are a blank, the ‘Memphis mafia’ merely namechecked, all his women represented in two brief, nameless encounters. Musicians are the ones who get their due here, exuding personality in performance, none more so than Austin Butler (“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s” Tex Watson), he of the Cupid’s bow upper lip, the perfect vehicle for that sexy sneer.
I grew up with Elvis Presley and yet while I knew all about the conservative consternation over ‘Elvis the Pelvis,’ it wasn’t until seeing Luhrmann’s film that I understood its racial aspect, headlines screaming that he ‘belonged in the jungle.’ With segregationists bellowing from their bully pulpits, Elvis ignored Parker and set the stage on fire with his antics, women screaming as Black fans broke down barriers. Did Elvis appropriate Black culture? Yes, but with the greatest admiration, and from within. This included his style, Elvis seen here shopping at his favorite Beale Street men’s shop. His prominent use of mascara and eyeliner are obvious, if unexplained. Butler has the moves, the charisma, the wounded naivety and while Presley’s voice is predominantly used, the actor sings ‘That’s All Right,’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ and others. And yes, while Luhrmann doesn’t dwell on it, Butler is also made up as ‘fat Elvis.’
Luhrmann’s use of flashy visuals, which also include bold location graphics and animated comic book frames, settle down in the film’s second half along with the film’s pacing, which begins to lurch a bit. The Vegas residency in the International hotel, ironic given Elvis’s dashed dreams of an international tour, is where the star finally began to see just what Parker had done to him, something Luhrmann notes beautifully with the introduction of ‘Suspicious Minds’ (and proceeds to ruin by repeating and amplifying the ‘caught in a trap’ lyric not just a second time, but thrice). Elvis’s drug use isn’t dwelt upon, although its impact and insidious means are fully felt. The man who flies off into the sky in the jet named Lisa Marie tells us about a bird with no feet, who glides until it dies, a, fitting description of a man who’s given everything he has to give.
Robin's Review: B+
I have never been a fan of director Baz Luhrmann – well, maybe his first film, “Strictly Ballroom (1992),” was a bit of a charmer – and did not like “Moulin Rouge! (2001),” “Australia (2008)” (boring) and “The Great Gatsby (2013).” So, my expectations for “Elvis” were pretty low. Fortunately for me, Luhrmann exceeded my expectations.
This is not to say there are not problems with the helmer’s magnum opus. For one, it is too long at 150 minutes and that is because of the director’s tendency to overblow the material. By that, I mean that the musical productions – and there are many - are done with skill, style and a whirlwind of camera movement and tight editing. The trouble is, when the story switches to family and drama, it is mere melodrama and pretty corny, too.
Then, there is Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker (nee Andreas Cornelius van Kujik in the Netherlands). I read up on the good Colonel and found out that he was a greedy, slovenly gambling addict who treated his meal ticket, Elvis, as an indentured servant. The superstar was there to do Parker’s bidding – to the tune of an estimated $134 million over the years of his “management” of the King. The Colonel was a reprehensible and greedy person and Hanks and Luhrmann give him his due. Too bad that Parker is an unlikable person, making awards to Hanks a tough slog.
When the film starts with the Colonel narrating his story, it is with a heavy Dutch accent that made me say, “Wait a minute!” I had to hear Parkers voice for real and, when I did, I found virtually no trace of an accent, not even a southern American one. I was distracted every time Hanks spoke and wonder why that choice of voice was made.
I was not enthusiastic going in to “Elvis” but I turned around 180 degrees on Luhrmann, at least for this ouvre. Austin Butler does a solid job playing the star, especially when on-stage, and I hope he gets further chance.
I understand that there is a ~four-hour director’s cute looming soon. Knowing Luhrmann’s track record, I shudder at the prospect of another hour-and-a-half of the stuff. I think it is best that I leave my thoughts about what I just saw and enjoyed and not taint it with Luhrmann’s expected kitchen sink cut.
Warner Brothers releases "Elvis" in theaters on 6/24/22.