5. A film based on a true story: Elvis (2022)
List Progress: 9/12
Birth-to-death biopics are always going to have an uphill battle, telling the duration of a person’s life in under three hours, especially with a subject with as many different stages to his career as Elvis Presley. Baz Luhrmann’s feverish Elvis tries to tell the story of Elvis-the-young-rebel, Elvis-the-racial-boundary-crosser, Elvis-the-failed-movie-star, Elvis-the-has-been, Elvis-the-political-statement, Elvis-the-abused, Elvis-the-addict and Elvis-the-tragic-burn-out, all while ostensibly actually being a movie about Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager and manipulator. The film doesn’t just bite off more than it can chew; it chokes on it.
Tom Hanks gives a baffling performance as Colonel Tom Parker, the shady businessman who “discovered” a young Elvis and brought him to stardom, while also financially abusing him and keeping him in a drugged stupor for decades of his life. Parker is the narrator and the opening suggests that the whole film will be him trying to set the record straight and justify his behavior. But the film very rarely has anything to say about Parker, and only shows him as a shuffling old man or a shuffling even-older man, only alluding to the wild life he lived before finding his meal ticket in Presley. He was an illegal-immigrant Dutch conman with a carnival and a possible murder in his past, there is more than enough content for a film there.
Elvis the film doesn’t actually have much to say about Elvis the person, either. The first two thirds of the movie are the strongest, when it actually engages with the racial questions around the music of Elvis Presley. The reason that Elvis was both so palatable and so salacious to mainstream white culture was that he was a white man performing a style of music learned in black clubs and churches. The beginning of the film features thrilling turns with Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King and Little Richard, but these are soon abandoned in favor of a down-and-out addiction story that could have come out of any music (or fame-related) biopic ever made. Except Elvis doesn’t even get to bottom out on his own terms, because he is presented as a passive figure, with Parker putting poison in his ear and in his arm at every turn.
There are flashes of good ideas in this movie. Luhrmann’s visual style plasters glitz all over the screen, and used more sparingly, it could have made for a great signifier of Presley’s career movement from sincerity to flashy artifice. The use of archival audio for Elvis’ songs is a great way to maintain the actual fire of Presley’s performances while still allowing actor Austin Butler to make them his own. And up until the movie gives up, it feels like it has something to say about race in American music. But there is too much life to cover, for too big of a figure, and one film was never going to do it. A mini-series, with each episode focusing on a stage of Elvis’ career, could be very successful. A movie actually about Colonel Tom Parker, ending with him meeting Elvis, could also be successful. But audiences got Elvis instead.
Would I Recommend It: Not really, though it is admittedly fun. For something on the other end of the spectrum, focusing a magnifying glass on a single day, check out a stage production of Million Dollar Quartet.