I don’t love Elvis or Las Vegas, but I always enjoy Baz Lurhmann’s movies for their audiovisual excess. Seeing an all-American story set totally in the US, but filmed in Australia by Sydney-born Luhrmann made me sympathize with singer/actor Elvis Presley brought to life by an amazing Austin Butler (who sings some of the songs featured in the soundtrack) and a well-cast Tom Hanks as the much vilified Col. Tom Parker.
After a visually baroque beginning graphics that gets us in the mood for garishness of Las Vegas, the film begins at the end, when Elvis has already left the building and the world (except in the imagination of too many fans who faithfully report sightings). If you’ve a touch of coulrophobia (fear of clowns), this initial setup might make your skin crawl, but, to a certain extent I think that is the intent of the script written by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce (“Strictly Ballroom,” 1992; “Romeo + Juliet,” 1996; “Moulin Rouge!,” 2001 and “The Great Gatsby,” 2013) and Jeremy Doner (TV series “Damages”).
An old, overweight man, Colonel Tom Parker, who calls himself the “Snow Man” has fallen down in an office filled with old photos, cards and memorabilia. Sometimes, in his mind, he’s wandering around some large casino in a time before Las Vegas was family entertainment, and among his mementos, is a Christmas Elvis promotional card.
The colonel (1909-1997) remembers how he began his show biz career (as opposed to how his life began), working up his way in the circus and then becoming the manager for a music acts like Gene Austin, Eddy Arnold, Hank Know and Tommy Sands. It is Snow (David Wenham) who introduces the colonel to Elvis. Snow persuaded the Grand Ole Opry to allow Elvis to appear on stage in 1954. In the film Snow becomes unhappy with the growing attention that Elvis is receiving on the road and his so-called lewd gestures and body movements on stage. His son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow(Kodi Smit-McPhee), however, begins to emulate Elvis. Elvis’ influence grows as does his confidence, but we also learn a little bit about the young Elvis.
The young Elvis’ father (Richard Roxburgh as Vernon Presley) was sent to prison and his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) had to move into a poor Black neighborhood. Elvis’ friends find music in places they aren’t allowed because of their age such as shacks were Black musicians and singers play and the dancing is lascivious, and where the young Elvis (Chandon Jay) might seem out of place because of his race–Black tent revival meetings where the young Elvis feels the spirit take over his body. This implies that Elvis’ Southern Black influences were less cultural appropriation and more natural synthesis of his childhood experiences as a minority in the midst of Black culture.
- Baz Luhrmann, ‘Elvis’ cast talk cultural appropriation and Austin Butler’s star-making performance
- Elvis Presley and the Black Community: Dispelling the Myths
Can a poor White person be more attuned to Black culture than to White culture due to his neighborhood? Certainly, we have accepted that a Black person might be more attuned to White culture from growing up in a predominately White neighborhood. That’s been a topic for a few shows such as the original “Prince of Bel Air.”
- Sounding Black or White: priming identity and biracial speech
- Black voices, white voices: the cost of accents
According to ElvisBiography.net, Elvia might have been a person with “a black could with a white face.” BB King is quoted as saying, “I don’t think he ripped ’em off. I think once something has been exposed, anyone can add or take from it if they like. He was just so great, so popular, and so hot – and so anything that he played became a hit. To me, they didn’t make a mistake when they called him The King.”
Soul singer Jackie Wilson is quoted: “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, “when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.”
In an interview with Jet magazine, Elvis himself said: “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music. I used to go to the colored churches when I was a kid – like Rev. Brewster’s church (Rev. W. Herbert Brewster of East Trigg Ave. Baptist Church in Memphis).”
I was startled to learn that Elvis Presley’s hair was not originally black and thus, his eyebrows and eyelashes weren’t either. Like bottle blondes, bottle black-haired people tend to look startling because their eye and skin color alongside their hair color don’t look natural together. But it also made me re-think Glam rock of the early 1970s and other movements that gravitated toward black hair.
- Elvis’ Obsession With Having Jet-Black Hair
- Elvis Presley: Graceland share real reason natural blonde King dyed his hair jet black
The film fully acknowledges Elvis’ influences (Alton Mason has a turn as Little Richard), showing his friendships with Black musicians (e.g. BB King portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and touches lightly on his romance with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). The problematic age difference, Priscilla was 14 when they met in 1959 and Elvis was 24, isn’t dealt with. And while we feel and see the presence of the Memphis Mafia, we don’t really get to know them as individuals. This is, after all, the Snow Man’s story, his version of the tale of Elvis. Should we trust him? Elvis’ mother didn’t quite trust the man and the vocal intro to this film is “Suspicious Minds.”
As with “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack (that film score was executive produced by Jay-Z), this film mixes contemporary artists such as Doja Cat, Eminem and CeeLo Green with classics from Elvis Presley’s catalog as well as giving us artists playing Black singers from the past riffing on things in a way that directly influences Austin Butler’s Elvis.
Butler has the bedroom eyes, the sometimes awkward shyness and lip-trembling rebel bluster one associates with Elvis. He’s a bit sharper physically than Elvis although there is one segment when we get to bloated, sweaty man pumping his fists into the air with an energy-level artificially elevated by amphetamines. Elvis died in 1977 when he was 42. The man known as Colonel Tom Parker would live on until 1997. Getting Hollywood’s all-American Mister Nice Guy, the guy who just a few years ago played Mister Rogers, to play Tom Parker is a great move that pays off. Hanks’ Parker isn’t a cheap crook, but he does know how to play a con, how to work on insecurities and the script is quick to make sure we understand the times. In the film, Elvis is in Los Angeles recording a special (’68 Comeback Special”) when Robert F. Kennedy, Democratic candidate was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (5 June 1968). A little over a year later, the Tate-LaBianca murders would shake up Hollywood (8 August 1969).
Luhrmann gives us these flashes of information deftly so we can see what, besides the drugs, fuels Elvis’ paranoia. For those who know a little bit about Hollywood history, there’s much more. The site of the Tate-LaBianaca murders had connections to the music industry (formerly rented by Terry Melcher) and it was later revealed that Charles Manson did have a California music industry connection (Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson). But, of course, that side note would have been a distraction to this story about the Snow Man and the Show Man, a symbiotic and eventually poisonously parasitic relationship that eventually unwound in the courts.
Another thing to consider in the case of the “White boy with Black hips,” it that Elvis burst on the scene in the South. Elsewhere, swing had already been deemed vulgar. On this side of the US, Balboa had already become part of the dance scene and like Argentine tango, it used full embrace. The belly dancing had yet to hit popularity and Shakira was decades away from bringing it into mainstream dance.
But mostly, I thought about how “Elvis” showed how silly the old wisdom that men were visually stimulated and women were not.
- Gender difference in brain activation to audio-visual sexual stimulation; do women and men experience the same level of arousal in response to the same video clip?
- Sex Differences in Response to Visual Sexual Stimuli: A Review
- Universal Desire: Men and Women Respond Identically to Erotic Images
- Why We Need to Stop Saying “Men Are More Visual” ASAP
While there isn’t a mid-credit or post credit scene, the music over the credits is worth listening to and the graphics are interesting as well. We saw the film at the CGV Cinema in Los Angeles (Koreatown) which had the added feature of ScreenX. ScreenX not only has exceptional sound and comfortable seating (plus flavored popcorn), but also uses three screens, front and sides, to enhance the experience. Usually, this is used quite effectively for action films, playing with your brain for give a sense of movement or mayhem. In this case, there’s less movement, but a little Memphis Mafia mayhem and the feeling of being crowded in or surrounded.
“Elvis” is a film that calls for a big screen, a good sound system and the mood to be engulfed in one man’s journey to the top as he’s helped and hindered by a soft-voiced slyly manipulative mystery man. You might, like me, end up liking Elvis Presley better than before.
“Elvis” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in May. It was released in Australia on 23 June 2022 and in the US on 24 June 2022.