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Greg, it’s time to get our aging hips gyrating like Elvis so that we can review the latest biopic about the King of Rock’n Roll.
My Evils Levis Love Elvis – is some sort of palindrome. Anyway, let’s recap…
The year is 1997, twenty years after the death of Elvis Presley. We meet Colonel Tom Parker, who is in a hospital nearing the end of his life. Parker begins reminiscing about the mid-1950s when he “discovered” Elvis Presley and made him into the greatest rock star ever. We then flashback to Elvis’s childhood, when as a young boy he falls in love with Gospel music with its African roots.
We follow Elvis’s life from the 1950s, through the 60s, and seventies. All the way along, Parker narrates how he directed Elvis’s career. And we come to learn that Parker was not a good guy. In fact, he may be the reason for Elvis’s ultimate demise.
Greg, this movie about Elvis really held my interest during its overly long two and a half hour running time. But let’s be clear: This isn’t a movie about Elvis. It’s about Elvis’s relationship with the enigmatic and somewhat sleazy Colonel Parker, who was his promoter and somewhat dark mentor. These two are as different as oil and vinegar, and don’t mix together well or for very long. One rises while the other sinks. In this movie, Elvis and the Colonel take turns rising and falling, but in the end it can be argued that they both lose.
In our 2015 book, Reel Heroes, we discuss the different kinds of dyadic heroes on screen. There is the buddy hero movie, of course, and the romantic hero. But in Elvis, we have a rather unusual case of the divergent hero duo. Divergent heroes are two people from disparate backgrounds who come together to accomplish a mission. But by the end of their journey, they diverge onto two separate individual paths. This relationship describes Elvis and the Colonel to a tee.
Scott, this film is spectacular. Baz Luhrmann’s direction and Mandy Walker’s cinematography paint a picture of Elvis’s life that hasn’t been presented before. One of the devices Luhrmann uses is to use cinematic idioms from each of the decades of Elvis’s life. In the early days, the film was grayish and dull. As we get into the 1950s, we get more color. In the 1960s we witnessed pastels and Andy-Warhol type images. And in the 1970s the color scheme and filming style were grittier. It’s a great choice that makes this a multi-period film.
I also want to acknowledge the fantastic work of young Austin Butler as Elvis Presley. To say that he had big shoes to fill is an understatement. So many people have done their own Elvis impressions. Usually, an Elvis impersonator will pick an Elvis “period” (1950s Elvis, Black Leather Elvis, Fat Elvis). It is easy to fall into parody or caricature when “doing” Elvis. Butler delivered a fine performance. He fell into every “Elvis Period” and delivered a believable, authentic, and sensitive rendition of the King of Rock. I was pleasantly surprised and very impressed.
Greg, you’re right about the stellar direction, cinematography, and production value here. No doubt Luhrmann and Walker will be nominated for some awards, and deservedly so. The standout performances of the cast are apparent from the get-go. Austin Butler was spectacular as Elvis during every time period of the King’s life, with the possible exception of Elvis’s final stage of struggling with his weight and drug addictions toward the end.
Let’s talk about Tom Hanks. What an odd role for America’s favorite fatherly actor to find himself in. As usual, Hanks delivers, although not because he’s especially likable but because he finds a way to wiggle and worm his way into Elvis’s professional life. We almost admire her smarmy charm. Colonel Parker was the consummate con man, selling Elvis in some ways that made sense and in other ways were terrible for all concerned. The obvious disaster in Elvis’s career trajectory was the decision to make one terrible movie after another in the early to mid-1960s. A good promoter and manager would have nixed this idea and sent Elvis on a far more artistically dignified path.
Scott, you mentioned Colonel Tom Parker as the “dark mentor.” He was also the “unreliable narrator.” The entire film is told from Parker’s point of view. His narration explains his rationale and makes excuses for his actions. But as the audience, we know what is happening. And it’s horrific. We watch as Parker manipulates Elvis and exploits his talents in exchange for Parker’s own good. And this exploitation ultimately leads to Elvis’s deteriorating family life and personal health. It’s a sad tale.
It almost goes without saying that Tom Hanks delivers an amazing performance. Hanks appears to effortlessly walk through Parker’s actions. I feel that we take Hanks for granted. He is the ultimate acting professional. We know that he’s going to deliver – it’s a given. And he delivers in spades here. His portrayal of Parker is simultaneously stunning and revolting. Despite the fact that he got second billing, this is Hanks’ movie. He is superb.
Great point, Greg, about Hanks playing the role of the unreliable narrator. Fortunately, the filmmakers are adept in making it abundantly clear that Parker was a self-serving snake oil salesman. Overall, Elvis the movie is a winner, showcasing the King’s remarkable charisma and singing voice, two qualities that brought young women fans to near-orgasms in the audience and also making Elvis the most heroic figure in rock’n roll history. I give this film 4 out of 5 Reels, and I award out two divergent heroes the full 5 hero points out of 5.
I’m with you on the heroic elements. We are witness to the full Hero’s Journey as we watch Elvis, and the “Dark Mentor’s” journey as we watch Parker. I only give a 5-Reels score to films that I think could not be improved – and there is nothing that would make “Elvis” better. 5 Reel and 5 Heroes – what a ride.