I’ve been giving Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis great thought, with several TV, theatre, streamed films, and documentary productions already in play. What’s different? What fresh revelations? How factual?
Anyone living on this side of stardom with a guitar in hand and a dream understands the climb is often long, complicated, and often disappointing.
The music industry Elvis was subjected to was fractured and governed mainly by the mob. Northern and southern. It was all about airplay and visibility. Few were prepared to abandon a good share of themselves financially and emotionally. Elvis followed that dance into a world of carnies and leeches. Not the techno-wired system of self-promoting millions of today. That fan base rested on teen magazines, wall posters, TV appearances, and that portable bedroom record player.
Elvis often said he was just a simple fellow from a churchgoing family. Presley was forthright in that assessment. What would transpire next was by choice and beyond his control. The Colonel dangled the dream like a bag of sugar candy.
As with Elvis, the mini-series from 2005 with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Elvis, Rose McGowan as Ann-Margret, and Randy Quaid as “Colonel” Tom Parker, it is the early years that excite us. It’s the blood churning through the veins, the body young, healthy and durable. The animating moment your music is first played on the radio. Young women chasing - the reaction and notoriety. Crowds swell. The adoration, the long stretches of highway in between gigs. The persistent talk of music, new and old. The horseplay, the laughter, the pranks. Then one day it stops. The day it turns into a business!
This is what lingers with me with Baz Luhrmann’s tinkering with the facts and stages of Elvis’s life. I again want to note this—I applaud Luhrmann for not wallowing in the drug cesspool and torturing us with another down-the-gutter junkie trip. So many of us have lived the declining years of Elvis’s life in real-time and never want to revisit them. A good many had left Elvis behind when the British music mob stormed and slammed the shores of North America, Elvis had earlier become a sad caricature of himself, fawning at the knees of disgraced President Richard Nixon. He was also big on law enforcement decorations - an honorary chief deputy for the sheriff's department for Memphis and a 'federal agent at large' for Richard Nixon. I don’t know if he was unduly stoned, a TV addict locked and loaded, or just unsophisticated? Was it the prescription drugs or the awareness that the train had already left the station, why he hitched his career to a busted wheel and never changed it?
I often wonder if the Doobie Brothers and Rolling Stones still enjoy the drudgery of touring. It’s a young people’s game. The B.B. Kings, Willie Nelsons and Tony Bennetts never exited or escaped the bus. For them, music is immortal. Calling up the old repertoire must still tap a corner of the soul.
There are those reading this who are musicians and have backed one-hit wonders and mega-stars of a bygone time and witness either the physical toll or demands they carry with them—the caked-on make-up, the fatigued wardrobe, set-list that seldom changes. Many performers jumped ship early on and sought other occupations.
I was speculating about the daily Facebook posts from Stones’ guitarist Ron Wood, as the Stones scoot from one concert site to another. The same two dozen songs we all know so well, the Stones playbook. Is it about the money or the music?
My dad used to bark at Elvis on the television, “Three chords, the boy only knows three chords.” Folks kept second-guessing the boy’s talent and motives. With jazz beating all around us, I kept thinking there must be big money in possibly an E7#9 chord and damn, was I right? Jimi out chorded Elvis with Purple Haze.
Luhrmann’s Elvis is lavishly staged, filmed, and the music is divine. The rockabilly tracks have a renewed urgency, and when in your theatre seats, they are hemmed in with big, bold audio - the grooves are contagious and pop. Peter Jackson’s Beatles: Get Back brought the real Beatles back to life, as if we were teenagers living in real-time with the greatest pop band ever. Elvis! As a striving musician, Elvis provided us with a hint of what it was like to burn hot, revel in the moment and participate in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Actor Austin Butler as Elvis is impressive, even though he closely mirrors another bygone-era teen heartthrob, Ricky Nelson, and John Travolta as he ages. Someone remarked, “don’t forget David Bowie.” Butler’s stagecraft is blistering hot. But, most likely, real-life Elvis never trapped this much heat in a single performance.
Elvis’s affection for the blues and rhythm & blues scene in Memphis, tumbling in and out of clubs along Beale Street at 14, is a highlight of the long-running film. No doubt, the Pentecostal upbringing played a significant role in the roots of his white vocal style, bridging a mixture of gospel and blues. But there’s much more. Crosby, Sinatra, and Nat Cole were immensely popular, and their smooth vocal delivery was the sound of the times. In fact, other ethnic singers likely also influenced Elvis. Church women of the day sang much like Elvis from hymns in the prayer books.
Tom Hanks as the Colonel is a slick choice. Hanks resembles the Penguin in an early Batman flick, played by Danny DeVito. And just as creepy. The Colonel sets the tone. - “You’re the showman, and I’m the snowman.” And lives up to his billing. The Colonel would work to untold lengths for his self-serving interests and his client. What makes the relationship even more fascinating is the daily hands-on wheeling and dealing, the scams, clownish negotiations, and the tool kit crafted from the early years entrenched in circus life.
As kids, we’d drift around travelling carnivals, slither under tents and around the props, and witness the small talk among its members. Raw, and funny as hell. Even the troupe kids were well-versed in defrauding the child next to them. The art of! Luhrmann’s Colonel Tom communicates with a slight Dutch accent, which is perplexing in that real-life Parker yammered with a southern drawl and the spoken word rhythm of a cigar-chomping huckster.
Did Luhrmann take liberties with the facts in skilfully piecing the story together? Did Elvis begin contract negotiations and exclusive management and promotion deals on a Ferris wheel? I think not. Did the Colonel merchandise “I Hate Elvis” buttons? He sure did, and they sold as well as the love you Elvis badges.
The Steve Allen Show asserting Elvis drop the gold lame garb for a tux and sing to a Bassett hound? Yep! A truly crushing experience. Allen didn’t want the blowback from a previous appearance on the Milton Berle Show when Elvis wiggled and crotch-rocked before a genteel American audience jolted by the kid’s unrepentant gyrations. Remember, Allen was no fan of rock ‘n’ roll. A jazz snob by trade.
Was Elvis given a choice between army and jail in 1957-58? Elvis was under a lot of pressure from right-wing Americans to right a perceived wrong. And time away in the army could persuade them he’d been freed of the devil’s grip. Elvis was passively on board, and it seemed a great way to mend fences and keep the publicity rolling.
Did Elvis meet future bride Priscilla while serving overseas? Yes! She was 14, a huge fan, and loved listening to music. In fact, actress Olivia DeJonge, at 24 years of age looks eerily like her. Born Priscilla Wagner, Wagner’s mom would remarry Quebecer and air force pilot Paul Beaulieu, and adopt his surname. While in Wiesbaden, Germany, Priscilla meets Elvis at his rented room during a party on September 13, 1959.
The Colonel boasted Elvis was the highest-paid actor in the world. Not really. In 1962, Marlon Brando was paid $1.25 million for Mutiny on the Bounty and Elizabeth Taylor $1 million for Cleopatra, in 1962. Elvis $1 million for the absurd middle eastern comedy-thriller Harum Scarum in 1965. The film took in $2 million at the box office.
I watch Baz Luhrmann films not to fact-check, but for the experience. That big-screen feast of adventure. There are rare moments of teary-eyed emotion, mostly dance, rhythms, shrieking teens and a snake oil salesman nibbling around the edges. Those moments of honesty and pain come across as filler. Instead, there’s rocking Elvis, brooding Elvis, and slow-death Elvis.
Luhrmann’s Elvis has taken an unfair hit from reviewers. I get that. Critics have an agenda, a story to tell. In today’s quick response streamed world, where a lone stranger with a computer can weigh in on world events, no matter how convoluted and deceptive, the point system and hearsay grab people’s attention. Most rarely read reviews.
As for the film, the introductory hour rages at a breathtaking pace. The camerawork and editing keep your eyes welded to the dazzling sets, the ceaseless frenzy of movement and electricity of an artist ready to conquer the world. I wrote earlier that I considered the film at 2 hours and 39 minutes could be lessened by a half hour. I was strapped to the car seat from hell in screening room 8 at the Varsity Cinema. I may rethink.
As for the performances, Alton Mason kills as Little Richard. Gary Clark as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe? I want that movie made and Yola the gig. Shonka Dukurek as Hound dog - Big Mama Thornton. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jimmy Rodgers, Kelvin Harrison Jr., B.B. King, and David Wenham—Hank Snow. Just keep this cast together and make the history of country blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Superb.
Elvis is making money with theatres only running at about 20% capacity. $64 million worldwide on a catch-up budget of $85 million. Last year, 2021, Elvis the artist, hauled in $31 million. I expect that to double this season.
As for the in-theatre experience. There were ten of us in seats for the early show. Whatever the case – catch this in the flesh. Next time, VIP seating.