We Need to Talk about “Elvis”—And Everything the Movie Did Wrong
Elvis Presley deserved better—but music biopics rarely deliver what is deserved.
I feel about Elvis the way I feel about most biopics of musicians: it will do until a good one comes along. That’s because these movies often are so rigidly formulaic that it’s like going on a blind date that turns out to be someone you dated once in high school 20 years ago—and they haven’t changed a bit. You already know everything they’re going to say—every joke, every anecdote, every everything. And the only reason you stay is that the band playing on stage is really good.
That’s the movie Elvis. The only reason to stay is the vibrant and energetic music. When Elvis sings, the movie bursts into glorious technicolor. The rest of the time: black-and-white meh. Basically, the movie is nothing more than a bland delivery system for the tasty soundtrack, like a gallon of white rice with only a couple tablespoons of delicious curry tikka floating on top.
Musical biopics generally fall into two categories: those that end tragically (The Doors, Bohemian Rhapsody, Judy, Sweet Dreams, La Bamba) or those that end in redemption (Rocket Man, Jersey Boys, I Walk the Line). Movie-makers prefer the tragic endings because there’s built-in pathos: They died young because they were chewed up and spit up by their own ambition and the soulless vampires in show business.
Director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom) is known for his elaborate musical productions and creative visuals but in Elvis much of that creativity is like bedazzling sweat socks with sequins. The effect is to call more attention to what’s missing: substance, developed characters, earned emotion. Ironically, Luhrmann also directed The Great Gatsby, which he desperately tries to cross-pollinate Elvis with. Instead, all he does is dress up a skeleton script in The Great Gatsby themes, march it through three acts, and claim the gravitas of illuminating the dark side of The American Dream.
Nope. The lights are still out.
A major creative mistake was to tell the story from the point of view of Elvis’s corrupt manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Hanks is a terrific actor who never fails to deliver a first-rate performance. It’s not his fault that having his huckster character as the narrator means we have to listen to the pontifications of a character without wit, humor, intelligence, or insight. He is merely the embodiment of capitalistic venality at its worst. Yes, he made a fortune exploiting an impressionable Elvis, but that doesn’t make him interesting.
The biggest mistake was to treat Elvis’s story like a generic one-size-fits-all tale. Their determination to hit every music biopic trope left no room for the individual—or the artist—that was Elvis. Instead we get a bland carny’s pitch: Watch the movie. Buy the soundtrack. Get a t-shirt.
Elvis deserved better. He helped bring Black music to White audiences which, though there was definite cultural appropriation happening, still helped lift Black recording artists to popularity with White audiences. Sun Records, which was Elvis’s first major recording label, was founded by Sam Phillips for the purpose of exposing America to Black artists playing rhythm and blues (code for Black music). To keep Sun Records afloat, he added White performers like Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. Without Sun Records and Elvis whetting the appetites of mainstream youth, Motown Records and Marvin Gaye might not have been as successful.
I’m not a rabid Elvis fan. I like some of his songs. I appreciate what he did for rock ‘n’ roll. I understand his enormous influence on pop culture. Thanks to Elvis getting his polio vaccine on camera, millions of hesitant teenagers chose to also get vaccinated. He broke new ground and released a lot of pent-up teen angst into the atmosphere. He paved the way for the Beatles and all that followed.
I mourn an enormous talent lost too soon (he was 42). I also mourn that his story wasn’t told better. They definitely had the right actor: Austin Butler is amazing. His performance is nuanced, riveting, and joyful. But he’s pedaling as hard as he can on a rusty bicycle with a broken chain.
I know something about being portrayed on film (see my article on Winning Time). I don’t expect factual accuracy, which is nearly impossible, but I do expect some attempt at a truth about the person that transcends the facts. Here the filmmakers seemed to be channeling Col. Parker: Give the suckers what they want—a shabby satin pillow with Elvis’s image—not a work of art befitting the subject who gave us art.
He deserved better. We deserved better.
[Instead of the trailer for the movie, I’m going to show you this famous (and grainy) video of Elvis doing what Elvis does best.]
About musician biopics: have you seen Love and Mercy (about Beach Boys composer Brian Wilson)? It certainly does NOT fit the typical mold, and has themes of mental illness and mental/emotional abuse. I recommend it heartily. (Rentable right now on Prime Video)
Wow, Kareem. That’s a terrifically written review. As artful as your sky hook.