It’s the moment when Elvis (Austin Butler) first asserts his independence from the tentacled hold that his manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) has, and, alas, will always have on him. Elvis at this point in his nascent career has been labeled a threat to the American way of life in the conformist 1950s onto which his shimmying, twitching expression of the repressed libido has sprung fully formed and without warning. The tut-tutters were right. And as Elvis breaks into a blistering rendition of “Trouble” after being warned to play it wholesome, the world changes. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution are distilled into an anthem of defiance and liberation that whips the audience into a frenzy with every thrust of Elvis’ hips, with every curl of his lip, and with every dark glare at the world that can’t quite accept him and yet can’t quite look away. If there were nothing more to Baz Luhrmann’s epic, impressionistic consideration of Elvis’ life, this would suffice. Certainly, it is the moment when Butler makes the part his own, channeling not just the man himself, but also what Elvis still represents to his fans and to the larger culture.
My prediction, it becomes part of the standard playlist for compilations of the greatest musical moments in movie history.
Luhrmann is many things. Disciplined is not one of them. This, however, does not prevent him from making glorious, sometimes messy, spectacles that hearken back to the giddy excesses of Hollywood studios in their golden era. And so it is here. It is a film that, like the man it depicts in fits and starts, has a phenomenal first act, a middling second one, and a third act that makes you want to look away in embarrassed empathy. And even in its failings, it is somehow the perfect apotheosis of the Elvis myth.
That we are not meant to take any fact of the story too literally is conveyed by having our narrator, Parker himself, hooked to an IV and in his hospital gown after a heart attack, wandering an empty casino. This is a film of metaphor as well as history, and Luhrmann uses his mastery of cinematic vernacular to condense the events of Elvis’ life. Hence, there is a literal path between the juke joint where young Elvis spies a blues master and the down-and-dirty dancing that will influence his own stage moves, and the gospel revival tent where the preacher will whip his congregation, and Elvis, into the same sort of ecstatic frenzy the singer himself will induce. This is not a scholarly consideration, this is a visceral joy-ride that nonetheless nails the emotional truths of Elvis’ life, and that raises artistic license to the sublime.
Who cares if Parker was really trying to rebrand Elvis as a family entertainer and small-appliance salesman in what turned into the storied 1968 Elvis comeback special? Aside from the comic relief, and the sight of Hanks in a truly atrocious Christmas sweater, it allows for Luhrmann to reflect Elvis singing a gospel-infused protest song, instead of the treacly Christmas song Parker wanted, onto a picture of Nichelle Nichols as Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, another icon of groundbreaking cultural change, and one endorsed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.
The tropes of Elvis’ life are covered, though some are given shorter shrift than others. The early days with Hank Snow (David Wenham), whose repugnance at young girls throwing their panties at Elvis onstage summarizes the greater repugnance of the establishment that will shortly follow. The pull Elvis felt to Beale Street’s stars and style are summarized by his frequenting of the Club Handy, where he is given to heart-to-heart conversations with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), which telescope time and space with a very un-Luhrmian economy, while also foreshadowing the twists to come. His intense relationship with his fragile, demanding mother (Helen Thomas) has the faintest whiff of something discomfiting rendered with a similarly un-Luhrmian subtlety, while his relationship with his only wife and mother of his child, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), has an unsatisfying superficiality to it.
Kudos to Hanks for stepping outside his comfort zone of good guys for a turn as the unreliable narrator with a questionable moral compass pointed unswervingly at a very personal magnetic pole. Sheathed in jowly prosthetics and a beaky nose, he uses that good good-guy image for the bluster necessary to hornswoggle everyone as he bustles and scuttles through the story of his rapaciousness and narcissism. This was a heavily-accented Dutch refugee, after all, who convinced himself that he had fooled everyone into thinking he was from West Virginia. It saves one of the most heavy-handed moments in the film, as Parker is quietly selling out Elvis to the owners of the International Hotel as his boy is onstage there singing “Suspicious Minds”. For all the subterfuge and calculation, and maybe beause it’s just who Tom Hanks has become on screen, Parker still seems to have some genuine feeling for his golden goose, whose premature death he is sometimes accused of causing.
Also noteworthy are Richard Roxborough as Elvis’ babe-in-the-woods father/business manager, Harrison as the epitome of cool, Alton Mason tearing up the screen as Little Richard, and Kodi-Smitt McPhee as a gawky Jimmie Rogers Snow, who first introduces Elvis to Parker, and, ironically, almost ends his father’s career.
ELVIS is a dazzling bit of showmanship on Luhrmann’s part. Sweeping in both concept and scope, it is a worthy tribute to its subject and his times, as wall as a long-overdue acknowledgment of the part African-American culture played in the making of Elvis Presley.