July 3, 2022
The latest superhero picture in theaters doesn’t stem from the pages of any comic book and isn’t suffused with CGI and explosions galore. Instead, it follows the meteoric rise and fall of a universally loved American hero, who, for a period, seemed larger than America and all of life itself: Elvis Presley, appropriately known as “The King.”
Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s musical biopic, Elvis, sweeps through three decades of American history. It takes you on a journey from the dirt-poor Mississippi slums that bore and shaped its titular hero in the ’40s through his rise to stratospheric heights of stardom hitherto unknown, and it lands in the throes of his tragic twilight years in the late ’70s.
Narrated by Tom Hanks, who plays Presley’s manager, Elvis unravels its hero’s storied life through the lens of its multifaceted villain. The shrewd but shady promoter, Tom Parker, was instrumental in propelling Presley’s career. Along with securing some of the first million-dollar Hollywood contracts for Presley, Parker practically developed merchandising for artists. In one scene, a puzzled Presley, surrounded by reams of his own merchandise, holds up a button that reads, “I hate Elvis.” Parker explains: They can even profit from Presley’s detractors. It’s a true story and a testament to Parker’s pioneering achievements in music marketing.
But in efforts to subdue nuance and underscore drama, Luhrmann glosses over many of Parker’s triumphs and talents, instead focusing on his (many) foibles and grubby practices. While Presley was high on adulation (and a copious supply of opiates), Parker obfuscated business contracts to fund his reckless gambling addiction.
It isn’t known how many concerts Presley unknowingly played for free at the International Hotel, but, as the film showed, his enervating late-career Vegas residency took a fatal toll on his health. Luhrmann not only captures Presley’s deteriorating physique in this era but also his abject loneliness.
Elvis impersonators are a dime a dozen for weddings and bar mitzvahs. But Austin Butler, who plays the role in the film, is no impersonator. Butler doesn’t just pull off the iconic hip thrusts from “Jailhouse Rock.” He deftly shifts his tonality, stage presence, and countenance, from portraying Presley’s shy, formative years all the way to his weary and drug-addled days in Vegas residency.
Though the latter two-thirds of the film focus on Presley’s decline, the most memorable moment of Elvis comes in its first act: When the nascent singer with slick hair, armed only with his guitar and unorthodox dance moves, faces an unready crowd for the first time.
It only took singing the opening bar for Presley to bring the stiff, seated audience to their feet. Against the backdrop of stale and segregated culture, Elvis Presley opened a new door for them, and for America, and then pulled everyone through.
Ask any of the great classic rock artists we have come to enshrine as progenitors of pop music about their influences, and they all invariably fall back to the swinging baritone of Elvis Presley. “Without Elvis, there’d be no Beatles,” John Lennon once remarked. Bob Dylan echoed a similar sentiment about his career, saying, “When I first heard Elvis Presley’s voice, I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
Luhrmann’s Elvis shows little of who Elvis Presley was as a person; it depicts Presley as an empty but entertaining shell. Instead, the film conveys what Elvis was as a phenomenon and a spectacle. Musical trends come and go, but seismic cultural shifts on the level of Elvis Presley rarely ever occur. Witnessing that revolution alone is worth the price of admission.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner