There have been numerous movies chronicling the life of Elvis Presley, generally on TV and some with game performances from the likes of Kurt Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers to name two. It is hard though to dig beneath the surface of this musical icon who died at age 42 in 1977, a bloated, prescription-pilled-out shell of the dynamic, earth-shattering performer that once was. In death it is possible to say even that Elvis is bigger than in life, with his catalog never out of circulation, the countless impersonators, all those aforementioned biopics, the endless books. But I have always felt the really fascinating story behind the King resided in his unique relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and there are certainly books about him too, even a forgotten TV movie in which Beau Bridges played him.
But after seeing the great Baz Luhrmann’s ultimate big-screen biopic simply titled Elvis, the real story as Luhrmann’s film frames it is all about Parker, the onetime carnival barker-turned-sort of puppeteer controlling the strings of Presley’s career. Luhrmann’s visual and vocal feast of a movie (you would expect less?) starts and ends in present day, with Parker looking back, and in the hands of Tom Hanks who plays him it is a creepily memorable portrait and even a risky one as Hanks goes all in on the accent of this man, who claimed to have been born in the U.S, even serving in the Army after illegally immigrating to America. In fact, he was born in the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelis (Dries) van Kuijk, eventually stealing the name Tom Parker from his Army recruiter, and later adding “Colonel” in front of it when given the bogus, honorary (but completely unofficial) title by a Louisiana governor grateful for help in an election campaign.
When the film opens in the late 1990s near the end of Parker’s life, we hear his narration debunking theories that it was he, and his enabling, that eventually killed Elvis, when in fact he assures he made Elvis. The film then turns largely linear flashing back to Parker’s discovery of the then unknown Presley (Austin Butler) swiveling his hips in increasing sexual fashion as women in the audience swoon. Luhrmann’s cameras also zero in on Parker clearly sensing this is his next conquest — the big catch. The site is where country star Hank Snow is performing and the next billed act is Little Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who Parker has been guiding. Once he gets his claws into Elvis, though, Parker pretty much dismisses Snow. Parker knows where his bread is buttered.
Luhrmann surprisingly keeps the story mostly going as biopics do, an almost Wikipedia-like account of the major beats of Presley’s rise, superstardom, comeback, Vegas years and decline, almost all manipulated and engineered by Parker. However in Luhrmann’s hands nothing is conventional and it is clear the director’s fascination with the man behind the star was the impetus here.
Even at 2 hours and 39 minutes, Luhrmann (who wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner) doesn’t waste time. There are the early years of fame, induction into the Army, a quick whip through Elvis’ movie career (one that started promisingly with Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, only to repeat itself in a series of girls-and-songs musicals), and even the talk of his co-starring with Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born, an idea deep-sixed by Parker.
One of the best sequences in the film revolves around the 1968 “comeback” TV special, where Elvis — in a black leather suit and returning to the music that made him — re-ignited his career after Hollywood grew tired of the formula Parker trapped his boy in. True to form, Parker wanted a more conventional Elvis on this special; he wanted him to wear a holiday sweater and sing a couple of Christmas tunes, and that is how he sold the show. He was one-upped though by Presley himself and the special’s director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), who used the platform to return the King to his throne by ignoring Parker’s orders.
There is a lingering undertone that if Presley stuck to his own natural instincts rather than allowing Parker to follow his, things would have been much different. The shrewd nature of this film is not to just to present the man behind the title, but also what the machine behind Elvis really was, and who it was that made it happen.
Butler, previously best known in movies for playing Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, is an ideal choice as Presley both visually and vocally, and he actually sings himself in the first half during the early Elvis era (replaced by tracks of the real Elvis in the later years). Perhaps more than anyone who has seriously taken on Elvis, Butler thrillingly succeeds, especially in the film’s first half, with an authentic rhythm that makes us wonder what greater heights Elvis could have climbed had he not succumbed to the dark side of his own fame.
Hanks goes for it and nails the enigma of Parker, even if for fans his authentic accent may be a bit disconcerting. Hanks dives in, subtly showing us a slippery manipulator whose decisions about Presley’s career might also be connected in part to hiding his own shady past and gambling addictions.
Among the supporting cast, Olivia De Jonge is superb as Priscilla Presley especially in moments where she angrily confronts Elvis with his increasing drug addictions. Helen Thomson nicely plays mother Gladys. And among the Black artists who so clearly influenced Elvis, Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King and Alton Mason as Little Richard have their day in the sun. Richard Roxburgh as father Vernon Presley, and Luke Bracey as Jerry Schilling, also have key moments in Presley’s inner circle.
Technically this is every bit as brilliant as you might think a Baz Luhrmann production would be, and that includes Oscar winner Catherine Martin’s costumes and production design. The musical aspects are superb in every way. Also there is a poignant coda with actual footage of the real Elvis performing in the final month of his life onstage in Las Vegas, wearing that glittery white jumpsuit, his face puffed and hidden behind those dark glasses. At that point he had basically been living on the fourth floor of the Hilton International in Vegas, with no path towards the exit. A later Presley hit song, “Suspicious Minds,” ironically starts with a line that just might be about the man, the legend, himself “Well don’t you know I’m caught in a trap. I can’t get out.”
After its Cannes Film Festival world premiere tonight, Warner Bros releases the movie globally June 24. Producers are Luhrmann, Martin, Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss.
Watch my video review above with scenes from the film.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.