Biopics about musicians are often sanitised for the big screen. Bohemian Rhapsody (review link) was more about Freddie Mercury, more than the band from a third-person perspective. Conversely, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis looks at this musician’s life through the eyes of The Colonel’s (Tom Hanks). It sometimes vilifies rather than objectifies his role in making this man a star.
Even this villain who managed this singer (Austin Butler) throughout the decades admits to his problem. We get little sympathy for the devil.
Anyone who followed Elvis’ career or was part of his inner circle knew Colonel Tom Parker was trouble. Even though he helped turn the teen from Tupelo, Mississippi into a superstar, the stuff he held back on (or didn’t allow him to partake) may have dimmed this superstar’s light by a little. The spotlight is back because of the award-winning performances between Hanks and Butler. The film is really about their relationship first and the music second. Any tidbits of actual history are marginalised. This performer was upset because he wasn’t given the respect he so deserved during his time in Hollywood.
As for what his music meant, I highly recommend watching HBO’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher. This work delves into the finer points of who this artist was and how he brought African-American music to Middle America, which Luhrmann’s film mostly scratches the surface on instead of delving deep. This director touches on it in a different sense; he brings modern artists to the soundtrack to show Elvis’ influence to today’s R&B sound.
The very first song, “Suspicious Minds,” only affirms my theory about how Elvis and Parker’s relationship works. I’m surprised “A Little Less Conversation” isn’t used ironically, since it defines the film to a tee. I’ll need a rewatch to confirm if it was used at all; the unspoken agreement was never detailed, and I don’t think we knew Tom took 50% of Elvis’ earnings.
All this musician wanted is to perform. The lucid introduction and moments to reveal a young Elvis are very stylised, and Luhrmann delivers with a very hallucinatory Moulin Rouge like intro. The two films are similar enough. The musical numbers move the film forward. That is, those songs examine the life of a man who is a dreamer.
Honestly, I can’t see the youth being that naïve. The Searcher showed just how savvy and smart Elvis was when he’s in control. His talent came from knowing what the music of the African-American people represented. He understood what their sound meant, and thus wanted to introduce it to a wider audience to enjoy, R&B included.
Meanwhile, The Colonel is a devil in disguise simply waiting to pounce. To show his ageing process and weight gain, this actor put on prosthetics to show this man’s true colours. More often than not, what we learn is that he’s always been motivated by money. This individual sold merchandise that loved and hated the musician. As a result, this movie shows Parker rarely respecting Elvis as a talent and we see that when he says the musician was merely a meal ticket. The talents he once managed prior weren’t getting popular, so he simply moved on.
Although we don’t know learn about everything that motivated The Colonel, we still have to remember this film is a dramatisation. Thus, what we see and hear from his narration is very similar to Salieri’s confession from Amadeus before his eventual passing. Both films showed how one has managed to manipulate the other. Baz’s bittersweet film shows Elvis never finding freedom from Parker’s clutches. I firmly believe he knew a way out, and in the way this filmmaker presented his life, the only way out came at the cost of his own life.
4 Stars out of 5