"Disappointing Biopic of a Musical, Cultural Icon"
What You Need To Know:
ELVIS is Director Baz Luhrman’s fictionalized version of rock star Elvis Presley’s career and life. The movie focuses on the Pentecostal and black musical roots of Presley’s career. It also focuses on his relationship with his parents, his controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and his wife, Priscilla. The movie is narrated by Colonel Parker, who’s played by Tom Hanks. Except for some recreations of four or so songs during his Vegas career and a notorious performance of “Trouble,” the movie only has snippets from some of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits.
ELVIS is a disappointing, somewhat superficial biopic of the “King of Rock and Roll.” It has too little of the joy, vitality and artistry of Elvis’ music. Also, Tom Hanks exaggerates Col. Parker’s Dutch accent to the point of silliness. Austin Butler does a good job as Elvis, but some of his dramatic acting leaves a little to be desired. ELVIS takes a humanist, secular view of Elvis Presley. It also has light sexual references and slightly excessive foul language, including 13 GD profanities, mostly said by Elvis. So, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution.
ELVIS is Director Baz Luhrman’s fictionalized version of rock star Elvis Presley’s career and his relationship with his parents, his wife and blues guitarist B.B. King, told partially through voiceover narration by Presley’s controversial manager, played by Tom Hanks. Having 13 strong profanities and 13 obscenities, ELVIS is a disappointing, somewhat bloated, overwrought secular depiction of the life and career of the King of Rock and Roll, which neglects the gospel and country music roots and lacks most of the joyful artistry in the classic songs that made Elvis Presley such a huge star in the 1950s and early 60s.
The movie starts in 1955 with Elvis’ future manager, Colonel Tom Parker, narrating how he first met Presley and became his manager. He introduces himself as a carnival showman who excels at selling carny acts to people. Calling himself a “snowman” because he likes to “snow” people, or con them, Parker is helping to promote country singer Hank Snow when he hears about Elvis.
Interspersed with these scenes are several scenes of Elvis before he meets Parker. The first of those scenes show Elvis as a young boy peeking into a “juke joint” where black guitarist Arthur Crudup is singing “That’s Alright, Mama,” which eventually became Elvis’s first hit record. While Crudup sings, a black woman in a slinky dress dances suggestively with a man.
While watching this scene, Elvis hears music and voices coming from a nearby tent revival. Elvis runs to the tent, and the other boys with him follow. However, Elvis walks into the tent and becomes mesmerized with the sights and sounds in the tent, where people are shouting and singing, and the Pentecostal pastor is fervently preaching about Jesus. Elvis walks to the front and lifts his hands and appears to be “slain in the spirit” or filled with the Holy Spirit. In this scene, the movie makes the identification of sex and religious ecstasy that eventually becomes part of Elvis’ act and part of Rock and Roll music.
Other scenes show Elvis as a young man going to a black club in Memphis, where he meets and becomes friends with blues guitarist B.B. King. He also watches Sister Rosetta Tharpe perform her 1945 gospel hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” but, most notably, the movie leaves out the lyrics, “Jesus is the holy light, turning darkness into light.” Sometimes called “the Godmother of Rock and Roll,” because of her guitar playing and singing style, Tharpe was a popular gospel music performer and guitarist of the 1930s and 40s who also began singing and playing some Rhythm and Blues in the 1940s.
Eventually, Parker hears that Elvis is a white man who sounds black. So, he goes to watch Elvis perform and notices the suggestive way Elvis performs “It’s Alright, Mama,” and the effect it has on the women in the audience, including older women but especially the younger ones. He says it’s as if the women are tasting forbidden fruit, tasting something they know they shouldn’t have.
Shortly afterwards, Parker the “snowman” talks with Elvis on top of a Ferris Wheel and in a Hall of Mirrors at a carnival, where he discusses his plan to promote Elvis like a carnival act while selling merchandise on the side and asks Elvis for 50%. (In a 1993 interview, Parker says he only got 25% of Elvis’ music deals, which he says was normal, but Elvis gave him 50% of any side deals Parker made, such as the deals for selling merchandise.) In these two scenes, Elvis enjoys calling Parker “the snowman.”
The movie skips over most of Elvis Presley’s early career, except for all too brief references to the songs “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” It also doesn’t mention his performances in his first five movies such as LOVE ME TENDER, LOVING YOU, JAILHOUSE ROCK, and KING CREOLE. These performances and movies are some of the best ones that Elvis ever did.
Instead, the movie makes a big deal out of the controversy that Elvis’ suggestive hip and leg movements during his early concerts. There were indeed threats to put Elvis in jail for these movements, but the movie contends that Colonel Parker exaggerated these threats when talking to Elvis so he could control Elvis. Parker convinces Elvis to tone down his dance moves. However, Elvis chafes at Parker’s the restrictions. So, in 1958, at a big public concert, Elvis performs the song “Trouble,” from the hit movie KING CREOLE. The song contains the lyrical refrains “I’m evil” and “Don’t you mess around with me.” The performance is such a sensation. That the threats of jail increase exponentially. So, Col. Parker suggests to Elvis and his parents that Elvis enter the Army.
Actually, however, Elvis was drafted into the Army. In fact, he got a three-month deferment from January to March of 1958 to make KING CREOLE!
After these scenes, the movie evolves into a more traditional biographical style. It deals briefly with Elvis meeting his future wife, Priscilla Presley, in Germany, but doesn’t say much of anything about his feature movie career, which continued from 1960 to 1969. However, the movie does show the behind-the-scenes action in the production of Elvis’ comeback TV special in 1968. The movie contends that Parker kept haranguing Elvis to do a Christmas special, including the shooting of the special in June 1968, but in reality, Elvis early on had nixed the idea and had decided on the special’s structure in consultation with the program’s young producer.
The movie’s final section deals with the Las Vegas shows that Parker helped Elvis get in 1969. The movie contends that Parker got the deal because he owed money for Vegas gambling debts to the owner of the new International Hotel where Elvis performed. At first, Elvis loves doing the shows, but he and Parker have a falling out when Elvis gets tired of doing them after three years. Especially when his wife, Priscilla decides to stop living with Elvis and get a divorce. According to the movie, Elvis decides he no longer wants Parker to be his manager. However, Parker has an ace up his sleeve, which eventually results in Elvis Presley’s early death in 1977 at the age of 42.
ELVIS is a disappointing, somewhat bloated and overwrought secular depiction of the life and career of the King of Rock and Roll.
The movie’s first act gives only a cursory description of the musical earthquake that Elvis Presley’s songs created for pop music, and the beginning of Rock and Roll, from 1954 through 1958. Instead, it focuses mostly on Presley’s interest in black Rhythm and Blues music, his relationship with his parents and Col. Parker, and the controversy about his hip and leg movements during his performances. Thus, the first act only has snippets of a few of his early hits, the songs that made Elvis’ reputation. Also, there are no scenes from his first five movies, which solidified the King of Rock and Roll’s musical reputation and helped quiet the naysayers and critics.
The first act is a perfect example of style over substance. Instead of Elvis being the focus, it’s Baz Luhrman’s quirky direction and Tom Hanks’ exaggerated accent that take center stage. In fact, the first act is so off-putting that the movie might better be titled, THE CAREER OF COLONEL TOM PARKER, AS SHOT BY BAZ LUHRMAN. In reality, Parker’s accent was not as thick as Tom Hanks makes it in this movie. Readers can watch YouTube interviews that Parker did in 1987 and 1993 to confirm this fact. All that said, Austin Butler does a good job as Elvis, though some of his dramatic acting leaves a little bit to be desired.
For some reason, the rest of the movie plays more normally. However, except for two or three performances from Presley’s Vegas concerts, Director Luhrman gives short shrift to the music. This is especially sad when it comes to Elvis performing his big hits during his 1968 TV special, where Elvis performs the hits in an intimate setting with a small band and a small audience. His performance there is electric!
Overall, ELVIS takes a humanist, secular view of Elvis Presley’s life and career. It stresses the combination of sexual and religious ecstasy that seemed to be a part of Elvis’ performances, especially his earlier ones. However, it neglects the country and gospel music roots to Elvis’ music to focus mainly on his Rhythm and Blues roots. As noted above, it leaves out the references to Jesus in Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s hit gospel song “Strange Things Are Happening.” The movie also doesn’t mention the gospel records and performances of Elvis, not to mention the Christmas records, that Elvis did. In fact, Elvis reportedly more than once mentioned the debt he owed to the Negro spirituals he heard as child and the religious songs he sang as a child. He also often referred to the debt he owed to black Rhythm and Blues artists. The movie suggests twice or so, however, that he stole from the black artists, but it’s a minor point in the movie.
ELVIS also has 32 obscenities and strong profanities. The worst are 13 GD profanities. Sadly, Elvis’ mother says one, and Elvis utters all or nearly all the rest himself. Ultimately, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution.
Toward the end of his life, before his untimely death, Elvis reportedly said he would like to focus on doing more gospel and religious music. If you’d like more information on this, and the facts about Elvis’s life and career, you can watch the tremendous HBO documentary ELVIS PRESLEY: THE SEARCHER. MOVIEGUIDE® also likes the article on the Elvis History Blog titled “Rumors of Elvis Racism in the ’50s Still Cloud Elvis’ Musical Legacy,” which actually refutes the argument that Elvis was racist and the leftist idea that he deliberately stole from black musical artists (see Elvis and Racism … Rumors and Accusations That Cloud Presley’s Legacy (elvis-history-blog.com). For a list of inaccuracies in the movie ELVIS, see ‘ELVIS’: History Vs. Hollywood,” at
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