Director: Baz Luhrmann (Australia, USA). Year of Release: 2022
Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks in a fat suit and a wandering accent) is rushed to hospital. As he struggles for life, he experiences the following fever dream which is about to accompany us for nearly 3 hours:
We start at a county fair where Parker is running some sort of road show. A kid comes along with a radio playing the song that everyone’s been listening to. It’s been released on Sun records, a largely black record label, so while the kid is banging on about how successful it could be, Parker assures him that there’s no market for black singers out there. When told that the singer is, in fact, white, the dollar signs light up in Parker’s eyes.
Your reaction to the rest of this very long film depends quite a bit on your reaction to this scene. Did you find it funny and inventive? You can be reassured that you might be ok. On the other hand, if you find it a cliché that you’d seen coming many miles off and remember from countless other inferior films, then fasten your seatbelt. There is going to be a LOT of this to come.
People in this film don’t talk like they do in real life. They talk like they do in films. There is a lot of declaiming, of long monologues, but very few people talk to each other. One of the film’s main contentions is that Colonel Tom keeps making decisions for Elvis, but once in a while, Elvis rebels. As just one example, Parker organises a Christmas special and expects Elvis to wear a Santa Claus jumper and singing carols. Elvis instead wears a leather jacket and sings rock and roll songs.
Parker is shocked, although at no time has he told his charge in advance what is expected of him. (it goes without saying that Elvis’s response was correct and that record sales zoom upwards – it’s also that sort of film). This spares us the potential dramatic conflict of Parker and Presley actually talking to each other, of having a proper conversation. This is supposed to be a film about Elvis’s troubled relationship with his manipulative boss, but we rarely see this relationship in action.
We are led by the nose through various incidents in Elvis’s life and career – the early hits, the appearance on the Steve Allen show where he is ordered not to swing his hips, the army, the 1968 comeback, Vegas, but there is no trajectory, no sense how these scenes follow in from each other, certainly no sense of development which affects how new songs are written. You feel that director Baz Luhrmann has chosen the soundtrack largely at random and doesn’t really like Elvis’s music.
The one unifying factor is Luhrmann’s hagiographic belief that Elvis was always and at all times a rebel. When Elvis comes out of the army and Colonel Tom forces him to wear a suit, he does so, but then makes a blistering rendition of Trouble (sample lyric: “I don’t take no orders. From no kind of man”). Only at the very end, when we hear newspaper references to Fat Elvis, is there an attempt to make him look out of control (but not fat – he must remain our unblemished hero).
Simultaneously, the film would have us believe that Elvis’s descent into spaced out debauchery was all down to the Colonel. He is allowed no agency of his own. His political opinions are reduced to him looking sad when we see news reports of the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Even this is a travesty of the truth, implying that Elvis was a liberal, when in fact he sucked up to Richard Nixon and offered to spy for the FBI on the Beatles and Jane Fonda.
And nowhere, nowhere, does the film address Presley’s troubled relationship with race, which caused Quincy Jones to refuse to work with him, and Chuck D to write the immortal lines “Elvis was a hero to most But he never meant shit to me you see Straight up racist that sucker was Simple and plain Mother fuck him and John Wayne” Instead we see idyllic pictures of Elvis’s multi-racial childhood and his tears for Dr King.
Now of course, the claims of Elvis’s racism are contested, and the film could have argued a case that Elvis was an anti-racist hero. The trouble is that this would require it to have an interest in Elvis’s personal history and in his beliefs that is clearly lacking. So race remains undiscussed. Heaven forfend that it could become a theme in a biopic of a white musician in the Southern States from the 1950s and 1970s.
The film’s ignorance and lack of interest in history is seen in many other scenes. In a trivial but telling example, we see Elvis watching a news report of the stabbing of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Festival (December 1969) and reading a paper whose headline is the murder of Sharon Tate (August 1969) while Colonel Tom argues that Elvis can’t tour Europe as the IRA is bombing England.
It may feel pedantic to point out that the IRA’s land campaign only started in 1972 after Bloody Sunday. It is perfectly legitimate for films to play a little fast and loose with the truth for the sake of a deeper truth. But there is no deeper truth here. It just seems that the writers aren’t really interested in the links between social developments and music. Like many of Luhrmann’s films, there is a lot of superficial floss, but little depth beneath the surface.
It didn’t have to be like this. Baz Luhrmann first got on the radar of many of us with Strictly Ballroom, his sensitive drama about ballroom dancing in Australia. That film showed a great solidarity with the oppressed and stood clearly on the side of the outsider. As Luhrmann’s career has exploded, and he’s been given access to increasingly large budgets, he seems to have lost what made him special in the first place.
There are some things to enjoy about the film, not least the (too rare) live performances. From the exciting early gigs in a tent to the much more lush performances with an orchestra in a large Vegas hotel, we do get a sense of why going to see Elvis would be an exciting, live-changing experience. But even the musical choices are manipulative. On many occasions throughout Elvis’s career, we see him performing the 10 seconds of “Suspicious Minds” saying “we’re caught in a trap”. Geddit?
I was expecting to enjoy Elvis, the film. I am not a great connoisseur of his work, though of course I know the big songs. I am aware of the debate of Elvis’s alleged racism, but don’t know enough to have a clear opinion on it. I was hoping, expecting even, a film that might shine some light on this, and on the life which produced so many great songs. Instead, we got this, a lot of spectacle but no substance. A stand in for late Elvis at his worst, once the happy pills had really started to kick in.