Alright, happy October! Time to get back into this blogging thing, and what better way to start again than with a review of this film about my 2nd favorite singer of all time, Elvis Presley?
Well, I don’t plan on doing a proper review, exactly, I’m just going to talk about what I think of the film. I still avoid theaters, so I didn’t see this film until it debuted on HBO Max. I have to say that I love that this film has been so successful, both critically and commercially. I became a lifelong fan of Elvis at a young age when I saw a biopic about him, and I love that this film is helping create new fans of Elvis, as I’ve seen many young people online talking about discovering him for the first time. And, like me, hopefully, many will now seek Elvis’ actual films and read books about him, to learn even more. That can only be a good thing.
However, I’ll be honest in saying that I was a little letdown.
Maybe that’s because of how universally praised it was beforehand, with the Presley family loving it, and the standing ovations from early audiences that screened. I know other Elvis fans online and they all raved about it. So maybe it was hyped up too much for me, and just couldn’t live up to it?
First, let me state that one thing that was definitely not over-hyped was Austin Butler’s performance. Yes, he nails it. This is absolutely the best on-screen portrayal of Elvis that I’ve ever seen. He deserves all the kudos.
But probably the first flaw for me is that it’s just one film. Even at 2 and a half hours, it still felt rushed to me. I think to show Elvis’ life properly you need a miniseries, not a film. I think of my favorite biopics like The Temptations 2-part miniseries and the more recent 3-part New Edition miniseries, and I feel like that’s what Elvis needs. A 3-part 6-hour series. But with this movie, a lot gets left out or glossed over.
I do like that the film goes out of its way to show Elvis’ genuine affinity for and appreciation of the Black community and Black culture. Including showing him growing up near the poor Black neighborhoods in Memphis and attending Black churches and clubs. This should help dispel the myth that Elvis was racist (he wasn’t). Even if it takes some creative license, such as inventing a scene where Elvis goes to a club with BB King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and watches Little Richard (Alton Mason) perform for the first time.
By contrast, Elvis’ stronger friendships with Black celebrities like Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., and Muhammad Ali are omitted. At least it does have Fats Domino in one brief scene (I couldn’t find the name of the actor who plays him), where Elvis calls him the real king of rock n roll, as he did in real life.
But Elvis’ film career is brushed over, which I feel is a huge omission. His entry into Hollywood and his desire to be a serious actor, following in the footsteps of James Dean, and his disappointment as that desire didn’t materialize, is something that I think should have been explored more
Likewise, his time in the army is mostly skipped. This film posits that Elvis was threatened with being jailed for obscenity because the government (specifically a racist Senator, James Eastland) didn’t like that he was making Black music popular with White kids and that Col. Tom Parker made the deal for Elvis to go into the army instead. That’s fiction.
I believe Elvis’ time in the army is a significant part of his life story since it’s where he developed his addiction to amphetamines, and of course, it’s where he met his future wife, Priscilla.
We get one scene of Elvis and Priscilla (played by Olivia DeJonge) during that time, and the film completely ignores the uncomfortable facts of their 10-year age gap (he was 24, she was 14), and how her parents shipped her off to America to live with Elvis when she was 16 (creepy). Their relationship is portrayed as a happy fairytale romance. They meet. Then they get married. Then they have a baby. They’re one big happy family. Until she suddenly leaves him, which feels like it comes out of nowhere, the way it’s shown in the film.
Even Elvis’ entourage, the so-called Memphis Mafia, gets short drift in this film. Only Jerry Schilling (played by Luke Bracey) gets significant characterization. But his best friend Joe Esposito is barely in it.
And the 2nd biggest flaw for me, which probably causes the other flaws, is that the film makes Col. Tom Parker the protagonist, and tells the story through his eyes.
Now, Tom Hanks is fantastic in this role, that’s no doubt. But this film is as much Parker’s story, as it is Elvis’, and Elvis often comes off as a bit of a cipher in his own film, we don’t get much into what he’s feeling or thinking, just what Parker thinks of him. And Parker does not come off well in this film, which I had a little problem with.
I’ve had this debate with other Elvis fans over the years. I feel like it’s easy to write Tom Parker off as a greedy charlatan who used and exploited Elvis, and this film does nothing to dispel that characterization. But if he was that bad, what does it say about Elvis? It makes Elvis come off like some poor ignorant hillbilly, at best, if he was so easily taken advantage of for so long. I think the truth is that, like with most people, there was some more grey to the story, it wasn’t all black and white.
Frankly, Tom Parker did do a lot for Elvis. He had a vision, and he helped make him a major star. He knew Elvis needed to get away from little Sun Records to sign with a major label, so he made that happen. He capitalized on Elvis’ rebellious appeal to the youth of the nation, and he got him into Hollywood at the right time. When Elvis was drafted, he made sure they had just enough material done in advance to keep Elvis in the public eye but also have him be missed, so they could then take advantage of the hype for his eventual return. He repackaged Elvis as an All-American boy, had him on TV with Frank Sinatra, making him even more popular.
And the merchandising he did for Elvis was revolutionary at the time. As were things like Elvis’ Las Vegas residency, portrayed in the film as simply part of a cynical plot by Parker to avoid Elvis touring overseas, but there are a lot of major acts making tons of money in Vegas today thanks largely to the template set by Elvis decades ago.
And he made Elvis lots of money. Of course he made a lot for himself too. And this isn’t to say I think his management of Elvis was perfect. But if we’re going to blame him for Elvis’ eventual financial troubles and drug dependency, I think there are plenty of people who were in Elvis’ life who should share that blame.
To be clear again, I did like the movie. It’s enjoyable. I’ve watched it completely 3 times and watched various parts of it multiple times since. Director Baz Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner, shot it very well. I think it’s a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with Elvis. I just hope that most use it as a starting point to learn more.
Long Live The King.
La Bamba stands out in my mind as the best biopic I’ve ever seen, Tom Hanks looks like LBJ in that pic!
La Bamba! I loved that one, too!
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