Based on the small sample of this household, this movie is going to be divisive. The number of musical biopics in recent years may be indicative of an aging audience as it seems time for us to look at the musical heroes of our youth. Queen and Elton John are prime examples, but The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen have also had films based on their music in the last few years. Aretha and N.W.A. also got the biopic treatment. Elvis is a different animal however, he has been gone for almost half a century, and his original fans are probably not around to make up an audience for this film. The reasons for making a film like this still exist however. Elvis is the pivotal figure in the creation of modern culture in the second half of the 20th Century and his influence still reaches us well into the 21st.
Director Baz Luhrmann has a reputation as a film innovator. He has made six feature length films and all of them have some distinctive visual qualities and a heavy use of music. “Elvis” should be the ultimate film in his catalogue if musicals are what you are looking for. The question before us is simple, does the film live up to expectations? From my point of view the answer is mostly yes. I will have a few reservations that you will get later, but let’s begin with the stuff that would justify some enthusiasm.
Elvis as a force of nature and cultural tipping point is where Luhrmann succeeds early on. Elvis did not appropriate black culture and music, he championed it. This film digs a little into those roots with a couple of effective scenes. The child version of Elvis is drawn to the gospel music of his black neighbors and that music remained with him the rest of his life. The spiritualism that possesses him is transformed into sensuality later on, in a way that Elvis himself did not at first understand. In a strong visual flashback and extended concert sequence, Luhrmann connects these two seemingly conflicting influences and shows how important they were to transforming music into a emotionally shared experience for audiences. In a longer scene, he rejects efforts to channel his singing into a safer cultural zone, and embraces his emotional roots, which happen to challenge not only a sense of sexual propriety but also racial suppression. He may have grown up in a socially segregated world, but his musical impulses ignore those divisions and his fans largely do as well. This film is not about racial justice but it is about someone who influenced attitudes about those sorts of things and he existed in that context.
The seeming Svengali of the phenomena that was Elvis, is Colonel Tom Parker, a mysterious showman/charlatan who took over Presley’s career and guided it to incredible heights, exploited it for fantastic sums of money, and abused it for his personal benefit. The movie is structured around a seeming end of life confessional/defense by Parker of his relationship with The King. I appreciated some of the details in the story around this, and the mythmaking is also enjoyable, but I have reservations about Tom Hanks performance. The accent and at times over the top sinister smiles, are a bit dubious. The one thing that is pretty clear from a story perspective is that the relationship was complicated by admiration and loathing on both sides of the equation. The most satisfying sequence for an Elvis fan is the backdrop on the 68 Comeback Special, which Elvis used to restart his relevance in the world, in direct conflict with the final sell out that Parker was trying to manufacture. The recreation of the special is one of the many spots where Luhrmann gets close to turning this into the musical it really should be.
It is the musical/concert scenes where the director and his acting discovery Austin Butler, manage to get the electricity that Elvis could generate on screen. When Butler is performing on stage, he really does bring Elvis to life and the sequences are well shot. It would perhaps be more entertaining if more of the songs were complete rather than composites. The sad coda of “Unchained Melody” is a good example of how a more complete musical edit could make the moments more meaningful. Luhrmann however is a visualist who needs to take advantage of the technology and control that modern film making can allow. I did think that he was more subdued on this than I expected.
The places where the film falls down a bit are the personal moments and plot threads that should be a little more front and center. Elvis’s romance with Pricilla gets a little bit of time, but his marriage gets next to nothing. The presence of Lisa Marie is tertiary and exist only for a moment on screen. His well known generosity is never touched on. The Memphis Mafia is listed at one point, but their fealty to and love of Elvis does not come across or show the personalities of the guys. Also missing is Elvis’s playful sense of humor.
Overall the film was very entertaining from my point of view but my daughter found it lifeless and a big disappointment. We will be talking about this more on the podcast, so if you want, come by and listen to our differences of opinion there.