He was a taste of forbidden fruit.
There’s a lot to talk about when dealing with Elvis Presley. Too much for one film to do him justice. That’s why Baz Luhrmann (who writes with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner) decides to tell someone else’s story instead: that of Colonel Tom Parker, the self-proclaimed “Snowman” who discovered the King and helped make him an American icon. Unfortunately, he also probably played the biggest role in killing him thanks to the pills and injections necessary to keep Elvis on-stage and this Dutch conman of a promoter from getting his legs broken for unpaid gambling debts. It’s therefore a tragic tale either way you slice it with high highs and low lows. And to hear Parker tell it, everything they did was for our undying love.
It therefore only makes sense to start Elvis with an aging Presley (Austin Butler) lying on the floor in the hallway of the International Hotel and Casino while fans cheered to see him sing. That’s when we see Parker (Tom Hanks, under a load of prosthetics and Dutch accent) ruthlessly barking demands that nothing matters besides getting him on-stage to fulfill that promise. He knows it looks bad too. So, he rewinds things as Luhrmann crossfades through time to show a dying Parker with an IV at the roulette wheel explaining how his detractors had it all wrong. There would be no Elvis Presley without him. He’s the one who saw what that Memphis boy could become with a shrewd steward by his side. And that matters most.
While Parker may be an unreliable narrator, however, what we see is closer to the truth. It’s an interesting choice because it keeps him on the defensive to color what is objectively troublesome as not being that bad. He was seemingly a pro at the tactic, wielding his manipulations from the moment he set eyes on Presley overcoming jitters before opening for Parker’s original act, Hank Snow (David Wenham). He stands above, watching and listening. Gleaning whatever personal little tidbits he can courtesy of the bandmates and parents trying to calm Elvis’ nerves. That’s how he’s able to make it “snow.” Spin everything to sound like it was his target’s idea. Make his victim believe that destiny itself placed them in Tom Parker’s hands to keep them safe.
Achieve your dream. Make certain your mom (Helen Thomson‘s Gladys) and dad (Richard Roxburgh‘s Vernon) never live wanting again. Become a bankable star no one could ever have a bad thing to say about … well, that was an impossible sell. Half the country had bad things to say about “Elvis the Pelvis” and they threatened to put him in jail if he didn’t shape up. What Parker couldn’t see (due to the scrutiny upon his own life that inevitably hit whenever Presley made some conservative politician or corporate executive feel sexually inferior) was that giving the establishment the finger was the real appeal. The music and the voice were great, but it was the swagger that kept them coming. Women wanted him. Men wanted to be him.
If Elvis does anything beyond entertain with Luhrmann’s trademarked remix filmmaking style whizzing back and forth through time and place underneath flashy captions designating our current destination, it proves just how much more Elvis could have been. That’s a scary concept to consider. We’re talking a true icon. An artist who bridged the racial divide to the point where those conservatives wanted him arrested because he was single-handedly destroying segregation. The biggest selling solo musician of all-time who built a theme park out of his home in Graceland. Not only did the exhaustion and drugs kill him young and thus steal decades of potential art, but he never even left the country. He never got his international tour or the millions in additional profit one could have provided.
Believing himself the hero in both his own life and Elvis’ story, Parker’s ability to keep the most famous man on Earth landlocked to the United States is a feat of genius. This guy was so good at selling Elvis to anyone with a penny that he sold that same image to Presley himself. Elvis Presley became a performance right down to Parker telling him to break-up with his sweetheart so the women in the audience could believe they had a shot and thus give them more money. And the sad reality is that this life wasn’t a set Presley could walk off. The story wouldn’t end until he died because Parker wasn’t yet through. Elvis sold his soul to the Devil and the Devil drained him dry.
Those of you wanting more about Elvis’ process or, frankly, the art itself will therefore be disappointed. Beyond a quick journey back to childhood listening to Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) singing “That’s All Right”, the songs are simply sung with little bearing on their origin save “gospel” as a catch-all. B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) arrive not to sing or show a contemporary kinship, but to serve as alternative voices to Parker by telling Presley he should take control of his own life. Everything is about the central relationship straight down to Jerry Schiling (Luke Bracey) and Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery) being obstacles for Parker to overcome rather than allies who almost helped turn the tide. The music’s secondary.
I don’t begrudge that decision, though, since, as I said at the start, there’s too much to Elvis Presley to do him justice in a two-and-a-half-hour film. You must cut things and the music is probably the easiest thing to cut since we all know it anyway. Show a clip of someone else singing the song, cut to Elvis, and mix things up with a modern take (the soundtrack is full of interesting mashups and reimaginings). Let the songs be a complement only opposite the showcase of drama and conflict born from shaking hips, screaming women, and a snowman who seemingly always knew the right thing to say and how to scorch the ground Elvis stands on when that gift inevitably ran out. This tragedy is about control.
It’s a successful one too. A mother losing it. A father squandering it. A naïve artist forgetting he possessed it. And a charlatan stealing from each one. Is Hanks distracting? Yes. The accent wavers depending on the scene’s tone and I’m starting to abhor this reluctance to hire bigger actors to play roles of bigger men and women, but I can’t say he’s bad. He’s simply been set-up to fail by the necessities of making stunt-casting work. The same isn’t true for Butler, however. He’s the real deal. From start to finish he embodies the King whether through astronomical confidence on-stage or heartbreaking vulnerability off it. With charm for days, he lights up the screen to show how nobody could resist Elvis if they tried. Nobody but Parker.
 © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “ELVIS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) TOM HANKS as Colonel Tom Parker and AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “ELVIS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis and OLIVIA DEJONGE as Priscilla in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “ELVIS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.