Producing a film biography of an iconic figure like Elvis Presley will inevitably be a challenging task. The subject is so well known, not to mention endlessly imitated, that it would be easy to fall into the predictable or mundane. Elvis, the recently released life story of the prototypical rock star, avoids these pitfalls by taking a more creative and unusual approach. Director and co-scriptwriter Baz Luhrmann, known for Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, goes in unexpected directions, beginning with giving the central point of view and the story’s narration to Presley’s manager, the dubious administrator of the star’s career known as Colonel Tom Parker who is portrayed by Tom Hanks as a charismatic grifter. The film begins with an ageing and sickly Parker looking back on his work with Elvis Presley, and the body of the film is essentially a lengthy flashback, often seeing Presley’s career through the questionable filter of Parker’s recollection.
The film also employs an unusual format, moving rapidly from conventional portrayals of events in Presley’s life to slightly surreal flashes of background or commentary, in the form of newspaper headlines, images of celebrity merchandise, remarks from members of the public, random behind-the-scenes views of Elvis’ tours, and relevant flashbacks from his early life. We also see pieces of Colonel Tom’s rather mysterious past as a carnival manager and glimpses of the early influences that moulded Presley’s musical style as well as his personality. Presley’s close relationship with his family and friends, and later with his wife and daughter, are presented realistically, while his career under Parker and his struggles to deal with fame come across less naturalistically, using assorted techniques to express the chaos and madness of the Elvis Presley phenomenon. It is a novel approach, one which acknowledges the Elvis legend but goes further, providing an intimate portrait of both the individual and the celebrity. Those dual aspects of Elvis Presley are clearly and often movingly portrayed, thanks to the inspired casting of rising star Austin Butler, who perfectly captures both Elvis’ dynamic stage presence as a performer, and his vulnerability as an individual and family member. Butler even performs the vocals during Elvis’ earlier performances, and quite effectively, although scenes later in his life use Elvis’ actual recordings.
While this is primarily a biography of Elvis Presley, the man, it also gives proper attention to his exceptional impact on popular music, and the reasons behind it. This requires occasional, concise but significant references to both culture and politics of 1950s America and an explanation of how Elvis’ early life turned him into a unique figure and musical commodity. During Elvis’ childhood, the Presley family lived in a primarily Black community in Mississippi, where Elvis loved and absorbed a musical tradition that included Gospel singing in the neighbourhood church, country blues in local bars and dance halls, and African-American folk music at every gathering. Young Elvis joined in, learning to perform the music he was surrounded with in the style of his largely Black community. However, as the film indirectly informs us, in the 1950s it was considered highly unacceptable for White Americans to listen to music by Black performers. Sun Record Company, run by musical visionary Sam Phillips, did very well recording Black musicians, producing what was generally known as “race records,” but with the polite understanding that the records would be sold only to Black listeners. Young white people, however, were furtively listening to this music on the radio, and there was a great deal of admiration for this forbidden branch of music.
When Sun Records released Elvis Presley’s cover of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s popular That’s All Right, it was something of a breakthrough. Tom Parker, on hearing that the recording artist was white, immediately grasped the promise – and the money-making potential – of a white musician who could replicate blues and proto-rock ’n’ roll music, and therefore perform and record for all audiences. Parker is quick to take advantage of the opportunity Elvis Presley represents and signs on as the young man’s manager, thus launching a long and oppressive reign that lasted to the end of the performer’s life.
The film gives due deference to Presley’s musical influences. Arthur Crudup’s particular influence is acknowledged through recurring glimpses of Crudup, played by Grammy Award-winning blues and rock musician Gary Clark Jr, performing That’s All Right – not as in his familiar, lively recorded version, but in a plaintive manner somewhat in the style of Delta blues singer Skip James. Over the course of the film, we also see portrayals of Black American musical greats, including the late Shonka Dukureh as Big Mama Thornton (who recorded the familiar Hound Dog, which Elvis famously covered), friend and associate B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison), Mahalia Jackson (Cle Morgan), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), and others, including Elvis’ first, enthusiastic sighting of a performance by Little Richard – played with great verve by model Alton Mason. The director occasionally chooses purposely anachronistic music for the film score, including rap and electric rock, when (according to director Luhrmann) the music of the time would have come across as too docile and unchallenging to the modern ear.
The central storyline of the film follows Elvis’ development from a naive but hopeful performer and music lover, to a puppet of his manager’s manipulation of his fame. Early in Elvis’ career, when outraged public figures decry Elvis’ style of performance as lewd and “Africanised,” Parker browbeats Elvis into modifying his stage show to avoid controversy. Repeatedly, Elvis attempts to return to his preferred musical roots, and is prodded and manipulated by Parker into something else. The infamous use of drugs to control the star is included in the plot, along with Parker’s self-serving efforts to divert Elvis from the world tours he wanted, moving instead into a permanent fixture in Las Vegas. The script presents Elvis as a wildly successful musical star, but one who is repeatedly prevented from achieving the goals that are most important to him, both personally and professionally. Luhrmann has managed to capture the essence of the legendary Elvis Presley, in the form of what can only be called a tragic success story.