“Before Elvis,” said John Lennon, “there was nothing.” This flashy, frenetic, typically flamboyant film by Baz Luhrmann gives you a good glimpse of why. When the wondrously Austin Butler takes to the stage as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll stars of all time, you can’t turn away – either your ears or your eyes – as the man intended.
Elvis has your fill, and he wants you to have his — from that moody, sultry voice to those hooded, shaded eyes and those perfectly kissable lips. And that’s before we get to the parts which drove girls into ecstasy at his concerts. Butler breathes the life, intensity and passion needed to pull that whole lotta shakin’ goin on.
However, music is just a part of what Luhrmann is interested in here. He also has his eyes trained on Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s much-discredited manager accused by some of piling him with pills and working him to death. The film is unfortunately told from Parker’s point of view and Hanks, like Hanks, is the centre of the universe he inhabits. His Parker not just lurks like a shadow on Elvis the singer’s story, he also lies like a wet rag on Elvis the film’s best parts. In his prosthetics, paunch, accent and an exaggerated walking stick, Hanks is neither interesting enough to watch nor un-interesting enough to ignore.
Parker isn’t the only distraction keeping Luhrmann unnecessarily occupied. There is also his own filming style, which with its gimmicks, lighting and gaudiness seems unsure of its own star’s unmistakable luminescence.
The consequence is you don’t really come away knowing more about Elvis than you knew going in, with the film touching upon all the Wikipedia generics. His church background and Black gospel music influence? Check. His deep attachment to his mother? Check. Graceland? Check. His tryst with immorality charges? Check. His time in the military? Check. The changing politics of the times? Check. The tragic love story with Priscilla? Check. The pills? Check. The end? Check.
There is at least some stillness in the film before Elvis hits his big time, with the film’s warmest, most un-staged moments being when Elvis is on Beale Street in Memphis, the sensuous filming of ‘Negro’ music, the reference to the unique blend of religious cum sexual arousal of music that he drew on, and a suggestion of how one entwined with the other.
It’s in this part that the film also allows Elvis or Butler his strongest relationship, that with his mother Gladys (Thomson), a deeply religious woman who saw long and deep into the future as things changed like a hurricane around them, and worried about it. Thomson and Blake portray the transition from mama’s boy to the adult who must leave home rather well.
But once Elvis has hit his stride, whether touring the South or more problematically the North, has come to the notice of the vice squad seeking to draw the lines of morality or of segregation between the Whites and Blacks, the film slips more and more away from Elvis the person to Elvis the persona. And more and more, Elvis the persona as brought to you by Luhrmann, via Parker’s eyes.
Priscilla is just a cipher, Lisa Marie a girl seen in passing, Elvis’s dad a black-and-white bad figure, Parker a buffoon who should not have fooled anybody, with Elvis the film hoping you get the message by repeatedly strumming up ‘We’re caught in a trap… Suspicious Minds’. Elvis himself leaves the building, so to speak, spared of the bingeing and fattening that marked his later years.
However, still, every time Elvis is up there doing his thing, working an audience, and Butler channelling into him, the film refuses to die. Luhrmann may have chosen to portray an airbrushed, digestible artiste who grieved over Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy, and not the other Elvis who fantasised about Communist conspiracies and went to President Richard Nixon with his Beatles fears, but it is an Elvis who is a true product of his times.
Times where a booming economy and receding World War shadows allowed a certain sexual liberation, times where America was confronted with tensions of other kinds, and times where Elvis represented the forbidden fruit one could take a bite of – one that suggested both racial and gender fluidity, within largely acceptable limits.
At one place, trying to justify his taming by the ever-calculating Parker for family TV, Elvis complains to his mother: “It was either I play or I get cancelled.”
Could “Elvis the Pelvis”, the one of “the grunt and the groin”, make it to a family TV show today? How many textbooks, on both sides of the aisle, would rush to erase him?
The irony is, Elvis wasn’t a rebel in the traditional sense of the world, only in his music. He hoped only to return home. And in what’s the saddest bit in the film, all the girls and the flings apart, he promises Priscilla, as she is leaving him: “When you’re 40, and I’m 50, we will be together again.”
He died at 42.
Yes, you will be a little lonesome tonight.
Elvis movie director: Baz Luhrmann
Elvis movie cast: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson
Elvis movie rating: 4 stars