At this point in my life, musical biopics have become a staple that I look forward to, whether or not I knew anything about the person they were making a film about. Why? Because I love musicals already, and there are very few films that I have ever found myself not enjoying. And so, even though I had only ever seen one of Elvis Pressley’s films and occasionally heard his music over the course of my life, his life story was new to me. I heard the discourse about Tom Hanks taking the plunge and playing a villainous character, I heard that Elvis’ wife and daughter were heavily involved, and I knew that Baz Luhrmann was directing (Moulin Rouge is life, after all).
Beyond that, what really captivated my attention about this film was Austin Butler – you see, I had watched him in The Shannara Chronicles, Life Unexpected, The Carrie Diaries, and Switched at Birth. At this time, I’m still getting around to seeing his other major film roles, but he was a known entity for me – and his acting was always enjoyable. Seeing a side-by-side comparison of Austin Butler and Elvis Pressley was perfection at its best. There was no question in my mind that he looked the part, had the voice to match, and the skill to bring a lively, frenetic persona to life on the big screen. I’m glad that I was not mistaken in that initial observation.
Tom Hanks, as previously mentioned, takes on the role of the villainous Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Pressley’s manager who lies, cheats, and manipulates his way into the Pressleys’ lives and is in control of their burgeoning empire. Olivia DeJonge plays Priscilla Pressley, and she manages to captivate the screen with each of her scenes – I only wish that she had a larger part in the film, but she certainly makes herself known here. Helen Thompson and Richard Roxburgh take on the prominent roles of Elvis’ parents, setting up a nice divide between the two halves of the story – Gladys Pressley holds the first half, and Vernon Pressley coasts through the second half, exploring the dynamic between Elvis and his parents. The Blue Moon Boys, Elvis’ backup band, are also featured with Scotty Moore (Xavier Samuel), Bill Black (Adam Dunn), and D.J. Fontana (Terepai Richmond), giving Elvis other relationships to play off of, showing clearly how Tom Parker’s efforts to isolate and control Elvis worked over the course of the musician’s lifetime.
Dacre Montgomery showed up a little over halfway through the film, and it was a pleasant surprise to have him here. Since Power Rangers and Stranger Things, his career has slowly picked up steam, and it’s always fun to see somebody you know. David Wenham plays Hank Snow, the main act to Elvis’ opening in the first part of the movie, and also one of the red flags on Tom Parker that was a crook and a cheat. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays his son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow, who introduces Elvis’ to them via the radio, explaining that he’s a white guy playing music traditionally associated with black artists.
That last line is a critical point for the film that it, thankfully, does not gloss over. Cultural appropriation has been in discussion more and more in recent years, and Elvis has been a lightning rod for a long time. Throughout his career, he covered the songs crafted by black artists, and in his life, you could see that he was woven into their world because of how his life unfolded. His white neighbors frowned on his association with black people, and his performance of “their” moves and “their” music was a hot-button issue in politics of the day. Elvis, though, was also conscious of what this all meant, and he did help to expose white audiences to black art. His contributions can’t be ignored, and it is a topic that can be viewed through many lenses. After all, music and art are nothing if not political in nature, no matter how thick or thin the veil is.
Elvis had a tragically short life, and how big a part the machinations of Col. Tom Parker were, is something we cannot quantify – but to say that it was low would be a mistake. People certainly make their own choices but based on how Elvis was portrayed in this biopic, those decisions seemed to stem from external stressors. Almost all of these were caused by Col. Tom Parker. The number of shows he had to perform, blocking his international touring ambitions, curtailing his career because of personal problems, interfering in relationships, and outright manipulation are all front and center.
Baz Luhrmann crafts a powerful story, and the simple fact that Elvis’ Pressley’s family was involved, increases the power woven within it. The intimate knowledge that comes from family is priceless. At the end of the day, Elvis takes its time to carefully craft a vision of who the man was, beyond the myth or the legend, and open us up to his insecurities, his anxieties. His humanity, really. It reminds us that celebrities are just like us in that they are people with feelings, dreams, ambitions, and foibles. To hold them to account for any one of these attributes without accounting for the whole person is criminal, but that is the curse that comes from being a celebrity. By having those who knew him best involved in the process, we aren’t being saddled with a caricature but as close to a realization of who Elvis actually was as we will probably ever get. Seeing the dark and the light helps remind us of that all-important point – they are just like us. Us, with a massive spotlight centered on them that we put there and then criticize them for.
I look forward to adding this to my home collection and taking more time to sit with the pieces that are laid out for us. Perhaps there is more nuance to certain scenes that will become apparent on a second, or even third, viewing.