First things first: Can newcomer Austin Butler play Elvis? Yes he can. Quite satisfyingly, too. Granted, the real Elvis Presley was a comet, a powerful flash of brilliance, and it’s a tall order for any actor, regardless of talent level, to capture that incandescence.
I re-watched a bit of the 1979 “Elvis,” because at the time I was convinced the young Kurt Russell was channeling The King. Russell, once a pro baseball hopeful, had the athleticism for Elvis’s dance moves. Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers was physically impressive as well. But Butler nails the moves, accent, singing, and Southern je ne sais quoi, across the board.
However, the real, broke-the-mold Elvis Presley blazed as brightly as he did for a good reason. It’s the same reason there was only one Bruce Lee, and why it’s challenging for anyone to imitate either man convincingly: They both channeled powers higher than themselves. Actually lower than themselves. I believe both Elvis and Bruce, via their peerless charisma and electrifying, never before witnessed physical dance and martial arts moves, channeled demonic forces that helped, if only in minor ways, to hasten humanity’s demise. Yes, that seems like a rather hyperbolic claim. But it’s got merit. Bear with me.
Elvis ignited a cultural rebellion with his inflammatory sexual dance moves that infectiously accompanied what the religious faithful at that time referred to as the “devil’s music.” Elvis’s mom said, ”The way you sing is God-given so there can’t be nothin’ wrong with it.” America’s moral watchdogs vehemently disagreed.
Force of Nature
The film is lukewarm, but one thing that it does portray smashingly well is the effect that raw, young Elvis’s flawless appropriation of forbidden African-American blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and gospel had (and what his carnal sneer, scorching hot Dionysian wailing, and never-before-seen vicious hip-swiveling gyrations had) on masses of mostly virginal young women in the 1950s.
It’s easy to forget how pure of soul church-going Americans were in the ’50s. But when young girls perceived a young man that good-looking, that talented, and that animal-magnetic, unpacking pure sex onstage via the devil’s music and dance moves? The inadvertent yelping, gasping, shrieking, clawing, weeping, and wailing that exploded out of pubescent girls—to the deep consternation of their male dates (and fathers) is a revelation. Even though we’ve seen a million examples of it regarding Elvis and the Beatles, it’s powerful to witness demons of lust usurping young women’s collective consciousnesses. In much the same way, it’s depicted that something unseen, yet very powerful, overwhelmed the pre-teen Elvis in an all-black gospel tent, out on the edge of town.
Parker the Puppeteer
Baz Luhrmann, director of “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!” is always overblown and operatic, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. Here it results in an overlong, rather boring Elvis biopic that’s more of an upstaging showcase for Tom Hanks to play “Colonel” Tom Parker.
Parker, the business manager later blamed for Presley’s financial woes, rampant addictions, and early death, is ever-present via an insufferable, nasally, stereotypically German-accented voiceover. The seemingly sociopathic colonel protests he’s not the villain. He was Elvis’s creator. And it’s likely true, and actually not a bad way to present the story.
The execution is wanting, but Parker’s explanation is interesting: Parker (not an actual Colonel), a European ex-pat of questionable origin and background, learned from American carnival culture that people want to see something that they deeply and animalistically enjoy, but that they’re pretty sure, deep down … they shouldn’t be seeing.
When the hysterical, tear-stained face of a young woman witnesses the Elvis pelvis for the first time, the Colonel sagely comments (and not unhumorously) that he immediately recognized she was seeing something that deeply moved her, but that she was pretty sure … she shouldn’t be witnessing. And that’s how the Elvis legend began—as an addictive carnival sideshow act. Makes sense.
But Parker becomes the audience’s unwanted guide of the tourist attractions of Presley’s life—next stop, Graceland!—and Hanks (in a fat suit) plays Parker as a creepy, old-time-y carnival barker. His hypnotic grip on the young Elvis’s mind flirts cartoonishly with the horror genre; he’s forever leering around corners and lurking in a photo-bomb capacity. It’s an eyesore of a performance (the accent, the hovering character, the amount of screen-time) but the presentation of Elvis as the mark in Parker’s long con grift is not unfounded. That’s American showbiz. And we Americans do love ourselves a good carnival.
And it’s all a bit hagiographical, because according to the Colonel, Elvis was simply a sweet mama’s boy. What’s glossed over and whitewashed is that particular downfall of all rock stars: pedophilia. Elvis, 20-something, by pursuing 14-year-old Priscilla, set the morality bar for rock stars low. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Chuck Berry, and Ted Nugent, to name a handful, all helped themselves to prodigious amounts of vastly underage females. It’s really a topic that should be front and center instead of passing off cultural icon Presley as somewhat of an innocent.
Great Artists Steal
I have less of a problem about Elvis stealing from American black culture—all great artists steal; white “Rap Elvis” (Eminem) has been touted by fellow black rapper Fifty Cent as being the best in the business, an opinion that flies in the face of uproarious objections by the black rap community. I say give credit where credit’s due: Elvis was a bona fide major talent.
Let me digress for a second on this topic, because the definition of artistic talent is a tricky thing to pin down. Some say the only true talent is God-given and meant for the uplifting of humanity. I agree with that. Mozart could hear a complicated Bach oratorio and go home and play it flawlessly on the piano in one shot; he had a musical memory beyond comprehension. But here’s a little known fact: Rock star Jimi Hendrix could do the same thing. The fundamentalist Christian church would definitely call Hendrix’s music the devil’s music and Mozart’s uplifting and saintly. So again—what, really, is talent, and where does it come from? Food for thought.
Ultimately What You Get
As mentioned, Austin Butler captures that signature voice and the astounding moves as well as any. What he narrowly misses is the dangerous, scorching hotness of the real Elvis—the wildcat quotient. The alluring meanness in the sneer. There’s more of a clean-cut, man-ish boy feel to the performance, as opposed to the boy-ish man of ill intentions you’d really prefer not to let your 14-year-old daughter go on a date with.
Thus, one of the most fascinating rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll stories of all time is hereby whitewashed and sanitized, which is curious, since Bas Luhrmann is normally as appreciated for his flagrant too-muchness and bold musical choices as Elvis was. It should have been a perfect match.
But Luhrmann is not as interested in Elvis the man as he is in portraying how the Colonel conned the King. And so the whole shebang is Parker as the M.C. of a three-ring-circus; an impressionistic, pop-cultural opera, full of glitter, pompadours, mutton-chop sideburns, rhinestone jumpsuits-with-capes, and pink Cadillacs, that sells the glossy veneer while hiding the complicated, pill-popping seducer of young girls, like a used-car salesman.
Joel Williamson’s book “Elvis Presley: A Southern Life” talks about how Presley, while on tour, groomed three 14-year-old girls, who’d pillow fight, jump up and down on his bed, wrestle, tickle, and kiss him when he was 22-years-old. Elvis later had Priscilla and another girl fool around while he videotaped them.
You might say that’s a darn sight better than what’s on Hunter Biden’s laptop, but … is it really? It’s definitely not as bad as the dirty deeds of that other king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry, or the 3rd king of rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his 13-year-old cousin, but this is why I submit that these proto rock “gods” were so powerful—demonic possession was at play.
Now granted, the claim of demonic influence really needs the unpacking of a whole long treatise to back it up. But if you consider the abuse of underage girls, the massive scope of influence that Elvis had, and how lust became acceptable in performance and society through the ’60s, ’70s and on, culminating in, say, Miley Cyrus’s 2013 strip club-based twerking dance moves to Robin Thicke’s thinly veiled song about rape—it becomes obvious there’s something very dark at work here. I personally have no problem calling it demonic.
Baz Luhrmann’s contribution will be added to the long line of Elvis biopics as fair to middling, but a star is hereby born in Austin Butler. Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley said recently, in reference to Butler: “If he doesn’t get an Oscar for this, I will eat my own foot.” That’s reason enough to give it a gander. But overall, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, needs a more comprehensive, unflinching treatment than Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” We deserve the whole truth.
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Kodie Smit-McPhee, Kelvin Harrelson, Jr.
Running Time: 2 hours, 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Rating: 3 stars out of 5