Elvis (2022) By Baz Luhrmann - Movie Review
Elvis (2022) Director: Baz Luhrmann Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce (screenplay by) Stars: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tony Nixon, Anthony Phelan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, David Wenham, Run Time: 159min Rated: PG (Canada) PG-13 (MPAA) for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking.
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review includes some spoilers)
Caught in a Trap
Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022) chronicles the twists and turns of the life, music career, and tragic end of Elvis Aaron Presley (Austin Butler). Born a dirt-poor depression-era child in 1935 in the American South, with the help of the dubious Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) he became the beloved "King of Rock and Roll" before his death in 1977.
Biographical films generally attempt to encompass as much of the subject’s life as possible within a couple hours while digging into the relevant material which might help audiences better understand just who they are. Even though many details about Elvis’ life have been floating around for years, Luhrmann’s film highlights some perhaps less known particulars. Avid Elvis fans will likely know he was a twin, and that his elder brother, Jessie Garon Presley, was stillborn. As a result, Elvis’ mother and father, Gladys and Vernon Presley (Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh), thought the unexpected Elvis was a true gift from God and destined for great things.
A lesser known part of the story might be how Elvis, born in Mississippi, was raised on comic books and immersed in African-American Pentecostal tent-revival-style Christianity in the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee. Luhrmann artfully freights the telling of Elvis’ life with these details depicting him as a young boy so obsessed with Captain Marvel Jr., the sidekick of the super hero SHAZAM!, that he runs around his predominantly African-American neighbourhood with a giant stylized lightning bolt hung around his neck spying on the sexually-charged dancing and melancholic Blues music of the local watering hole and experiences the competing shaking and gyrating enthusiasm of a Pentecostal tent revival. A fusion of these elements with the Tennessee country music galvanized the teenage Elvis’ musical sensibilities. His family firmly believed his musical talent was a God-given gift and he quickly became a recording artist for Sun Records. That might have been the end of it if it weren’t for an ambitious carnival promoter Colonel Tom Parker.
Parker is the film’s narrator and by the end of the film this shadowy carnival promoter clearly proves himself an unreliable story teller seeking self-justification for his actions. The unreliable narrator is a literary device where readers —or in this case viewers— are forced to ponder whether the narrator is being deliberately deceptive or simply mistaken. This is very clever on the part of Luhrmann who is making a film where the majority of his audience thinks they know Elvis and will judge what they are watching based on what they believe is the truth about him. This creates a subtext of whether viewers can trust what they know or what the film is showing them. This also raises questions: Was the Elvis they enjoyed as a personality and musician the real Elvis or was he only a fabrication of Colonel Tom Parker and the media of the time? Is the film they are watching presenting the truth? Can the truth even be known at this point? How aware was Elvis in the construction of his career and how much of who he became was the result of artful and crafty manipulation at the hands of a carnival promoter looking for the perfect “honest con” geek show where he deliberately sets the stage for people to willingly and happily part with their money? The recent Guillermo del Toro film Nightmare Alley (2021) likewise delves into some of these same questions.
Luhrmann paints a picture of Elvis as a young kind-hearted but naive cash cow, a sort of goose that lays the golden egg who was being taken advantage of throughout his musical career. Sometimes he and his family seem in on the “snow job” Colonel Parker is perpetrating while at other times they are desperately and sadly in the dark. Perhaps the most heart-breaking illustration of this is depicted in the International Hotel’s show lounge in Las Vegas when Elvis debuts his song “Suspicious Minds,” he literally sings “we're caught in a trap, I can't walk out because I love you too much, baby. Why can't you see, what you're doin' to me …” as Colonel Parker is simultaneously signing a contract with Meyer Kohn (Anthony Phelan), the mobbed-up casino owner, locking Elvis into a long-term multi-year agreement basically preventing him from doing international touring while at the same time canceling the Colonel’s significant gambling debts and extending him an unlimited line of credit.
From the beginning the opportunistic Colonel Parker found every way to insinuate himself into Elvis’ career and keep himself there, always making himself indispensible, even framing himself metaphorically as Elvis’ twin saying things like, “We are the same, you and I! We are two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity.” Here “eternity” is not really reflecting the Christian use of the word but is a reference to Elvis’ childhood comic books and the “Rock of Eternity” which is part of the Captain Marvel Jr. story that was entwined in Elvis’ thoughts concerning his dead twin brother. Near the beginning of the film’s first act while the svengali con man Colonel Parker is making Elvis his “mark” he spies on the Presley family in an alleyway as Elvis and his band are about to take to the stage for his first public performance. He overhears them singing the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” to calm their nerves. It’s another moment connected to Elvis’ twin Jessy, and the Colonel later says to Elvis, “I wish to promote you, Mr. Presley. Are you ready to fly?” to which Elvis replies, “I'm ready. Ready to fly.”
Everything with Colonel Parker is carnival style manipulation. At one point he convinces the family to sell both “I love Elvis,” and “I hate Elvis,” pins so both fans and non-fans can part from their hard-earned cash. All of his trickery is referred to as “making it snow,” and Colonel Parker was called “the Snowman” even by Elvis. Later in the film Luhrmann shows Colonel Parker’s office decorated with strange artwork of a snowman which references a secret society of carnival promoters called the Snowmen's League of America of which he was the Chief Potentate. (It’s a cheeky pun on the real life Showmen's League of America.) Nothing about Colonel Parker is as it seems and the film does a good job peeling back the onion layer by layer never really getting to the truth. Sleight of hand and misdirection concealed his lack of a passport and Parker’s “Colonel” moniker apparently was not authentic either, in fact he wasn’t even an American citizen. Had Elvis and his family known the full extent of his lies they likely wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. But they trusted him initially because Colonel Parker was successfully managing the Canadian country singer Hank Snow (David Wenham).
As a momma’s boy and a bit of a little goody two-shoes Elvis was truly confounded by the public’s initial reaction to his performances. At first his gyrations were simply his way of dealing with nervous energy. He had no idea how teenage girls and women were interpreting it but the more worldly Colonel Parker understood, and watching the crowd of girls dissemble into hysterics comments “Now, I don't know nothing about music. But I could see in that girl's eyes, he was a taste of forbidden fruit. She could have eaten him alive!” Along the way Elvis succumbs to temptations of the flesh as they present themselves both before and after his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). He also naively ends up taking uppers and downers which put him on a path towards abusing alcohol, like is mother, and allowing Colonel Parker to direct Dr. Nick (Tony Nixon), their doctor on retainer, to administer a cocktail of drugs meant to keep Elvis performing. This is more sleight of hand as the Colonel ropes Elvis’ father into having the final say making Vernon complicit in the prescription drug abuse of his son. Although Luhrmann portrays Elvis as a man who desired primarily to live a pure and decent life in what he said and did he continually failed, and his generosity while genuinely appreciated by some was shown to be woefully taken advantage of by others leaving him financially ruined and unable to escape his predicament.
When Elvis is not the fool in Luhrmann’s film, try as he might he just can’t save himself from who he has become. This is the tragic core of the film and will resonate with Christians who understand their constant need for redemption, mercy, and forgiveness. Apart from one or two scenes near the end of the film Austin Butler is superb as Elvis turning in an outstanding performance in a movie that actually has something to say about fame and fortune and what it costs the soul. This is a movie that will likely be watched by an older crowd with personal memories of Elvis, or who grew up in the long shadow Elvis cast in the years after his death. But it really is a movie younger people should watch. Tragedy as a genre can be informative and instructive. Think of the wisdom literature of Scripture or the Book of Job or the parables of Jesus and in an era where, due to the influence of the internet, people can rise to “stardom” in a variety of ways, young people and people of any age can benefit from a cautionary tale depicting individuals and industries willing to chew up talent and spit it out. Illustrative of this is a scene where Elvis is in danger on stage and Colonel Parker blurts out, “save the merchandise!”
If everything is focused on individual identity and people— like Elvis— believe the façade they have constructed for themselves or have had constructed for them by groomers and promoters is their true identity then a crisis of identity is inevitable. Luhrmann paints a picture of Elvis as a man suffering from an identity crisis in the hands of a wicked promoter. The kicker is that Colonel Parker, as the unreliable narrator, deftly shifts blame for his part in Elvis’ death onto the viewer saying that Elvis died not from a heart attack brought on by complications arising from drug use and poor health, but because his fans loved him too much and Elvis wore himself out trying to love them back as much as they loved him. Notably some artists and public figures like Michael Jackson die under very suspicious circumstances while others die at the height of their careers under perhaps less suspicious but certainly tragic circumstances like singers Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse or actors like Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy. Some don’t die but at very least come to great ruin and humiliation under extreme public pressures and mismanagement like pop singer Britney Spears and her 2007 head shaving meltdown or fellow Nickelodeon alumnae and YA actor Amanda Bynes’ public bipolar ideations aggravated by substance abuse. While others take their own life like musicians Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell, documentarian Anthony Bourdain, or director Tony Scott, in many of these cases fans are left to wonder and speculate to what extent the people around them did or did not contribute to these untimely deaths. Elvis’ death was neither a suicide nor a homicide yet it was a dark preventable tragedy and even if it’s true that he worked himself too hard to please his fans under sub-optimal physical conditions does that mean the fans or the public are guilty of his death? This may be an interesting question to contemplate but viewers should avoid getting on that particular carnival ride of guilt no matter how persuasive the carnival barker might sound. That Colonel Parker shifts blame to the fans should make a viewer sit up and take notice.
Considering Elvis from a biblical perspective Christian viewers may want to read Psalm 55, the inspiration for the song “I’ll Fly Away,” in which King David laments the betrayal he faced from Ahithophel his trusted adviser who he counted as his friend while David’s son Absalom fulminated rebellion against his father (2 Samuel 15:1-17:23). The Psalm is not just about a desire to fly away from trouble (Psalm 55:6) it’s also about being in the hands of a wicked man whose speech was smooth as butter and whose words were softer than oil yet they were actually drawn swords meant to harm (Psalm 55:21). It’s a prayer for mercy in the face of oppression and fraud (Psalm 55:11). A prayer for when the adversary is one who is not on the surface an enemy but rather one considered an equal, a companion, and a familiar friend (Psalm 55:13).
While the film certainly delves into territory worth thinking about, some Elvis fans may not want to watch this film as it is desperately sad and tragic. Knowing this going in will help temper the viewing experience. Also, with the music and the stylish presentation, older audiences members who take to heart Colonel Parker’s “snow job” might walk away feeling responsible in part for Elvis’ death. As previously mentioned this would be lamentable. Those wanting a nostalgic dose of Elvis without the tragic story of his life may be better off watching one of his many films some of which are quite good like King Creole (1958), Blue Hawaii (1961), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and Viva Las Vegas (1964) or maybe just listen to some of his music.
Lastly, Luhrmann’s Elvis, like many biopics, should be taken with a grain of salt. While Luhrmann does an admirable job showing Elvis’ relationship with African- American artists like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) he misrepresents the timing of certain events and their implied immediate impact on Elvis’ decision making processes. This is particularly the case with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the production of Elvis Presley's 1968 comeback special which both happened in 1968 but didn’t really overlap chronologically in real life. As expected Luhrmann has taken some creative licence, however what might be unexpected for some unfamiliar with Luhrmann’s work with films like Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013) is his deft way of handling a complex story. As a result Elvis is the kind of movie that operates both as a telling of the subject’s life as well as a parable of the dangers inherent in the lure of fame and fortune.Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!