I gave Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis big thought, with several TV, theater, streaming and documentary productions already underway. What is different? What new revelations? How factual?
Anyone who lives on this side of fame with a guitar in hand and a dream understands that the climb is often long, complicated and often disappointing.
The music industry to which Elvis was subjected was fractured and ruled primarily by the mob. North and South. It was all about distribution and visibility. Few were willing to give up much of themselves financially and emotionally. Elvis followed this dance into a world of carnies and leeches. Not the techno-wired system of self-promotion of millions today. That fan base was based on teen magazines, wall posters, television appearances, and that portable record player in the bedroom.
Elvis often said he was just a fellow member of an observant family. Presley was candid in this assessment. What happened next was by choice and out of his control. The Colonel dangled the dream like a bag of rock candy.
Like with Elvis, the 2005 miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Elvis, Rose McGowan as Ann-Margret and Randy Quaid as “Colonel” Tom Parker, it’s the early years that we’re excited about. It is the blood that runs through the veins, the young, healthy and durable body. The animated moment when your music first hits the radio. Young women in pursuit – the reaction and notoriety. The crowds are growing. The adoration, the long stretches of highway between concerts. The persistent discourse of music, new and old. The heckling, the laughter, the pranks. Then one day it stops. The day it turns into a business!
That’s what lingers with Baz Luhrmann’s tinkering with the facts and stages of Elvis’ life. I want to stress this again – I commend Luhrmann for not wallowing in the drug cesspool and torturing us with another junkie trip down the gutter. Many of us have lived through the waning years of Elvis’ life in real time and never want to see them again. Quite a few had left Elvis behind when the British music crowd stormed and slammed the shores of North America, Elvis had previously become a sad caricature of himself, patting the knees of the disgraced president Richard Nixon. He was also big on law enforcement decorations — an honorary chief deputy for the Memphis Sheriff’s Department and a “federal agent at large” for Richard Nixon. I don’t know if he was unduly stoned, a locked up and loaded TV addict, or just a little savvy? Was it the prescription drugs or the realization that the train had already left the station, why he hitched his career to a broken wheel and never changed it?
I often wonder if the Doobie Brothers and the Rolling Stones still enjoy the drudgery of touring. It’s a youth game. The BB Kings, Willie Nelsons and Tony Bennetts never got out or escaped the bus. For them, music is immortal. Calling on the old repertoire must still touch a corner of the soul.
There are those reading this who are musicians and backed one-hit wonders and mega-stars of a bygone era and witness either the physical toll or the demands they carry with them – the encrusted make-up, the tired wardrobe, the set-list that rarely changes. Many artists jumped ship early and sought other occupations.
I was speculating about Stones guitarist Ron Wood’s daily Facebook posts as the Stones moved from one concert site to another. The same two dozen songs we all know so well, the Stones’ playbook. Is it a question of money or music?
My dad used to bark at Elvis on TV, “Three chords, the boy only knows three chords.” People kept guessing about the boy’s talent and motivations. With jazz pounding all around us, I kept thinking there must be a lot of money in maybe an E7 #9 chord and damn, was I right? Jimi granted Elvis with Purple Haze.
by Luhrmann Elvis is sumptuously staged, filmed, and the music is divine. Rockabilly tracks have a renewed urgency, and when you’re in your theater seats, they’re surrounded by a bold, powerful sound – the grooves are infectious and pop. that of Peter Jackson Beatles: Come Back brought the real Beatles back to life, like we were teenagers living in real time with the greatest pop band of all time. Elvis! As a passionate musician, Elvis gave us a taste of what it was like to burn, to revel in the moment, and to be part of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Casting Austin Butler as Elvis is impressive, though he closely mirrors another teen idol from a bygone era, Ricky Nelson, and John Travolta as he gets older. Someone remarked, “don’t forget David Bowie.” Butler’s staging is fiery. But, most likely, Elvis in real life has never trapped so much heat in a single performance.
Elvis’ affection for Memphis’ blues and rhythm & blues scene, walking in and out of clubs along Beale Street at 14, is a highlight of the feature film. Undoubtedly, Pentecostal upbringing played an important role in the roots of his white vocal style, bridging a mix of gospel and blues. But there is 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 probably also influenced Elvis. Church women of the day sang much like Elvis from hymns in the prayer books.
Tom Hanks as Colonel is a solid choice. Hanks looks like the Penguin in an early Batman movie, played by Danny DeVito. And just as scary. The colonel sets the tone. – “You’re the showman, and I’m the snowman.” And up to its billing. The colonel would work tirelessly for his personal interests and his client. What makes the relationship even more fascinating are the daily manipulations and dealings, the scams, the clownish negotiations and the tool kit devised from the early years rooted in circus life.
As children, we strolled through the traveling carnivals, we glided through the tents and around the props, and watched the small talk among its members. Raw, and funny as hell. Even the kids in the troupe knew how to cheat the kid next to them. The art of! Colonel Tom de Luhrmann communicates with a slight Dutch accent, which is disconcerting in Parker’s real life with a southern drawl and the rhythm of a cigar peddler’s speech.
Did Luhrmann take liberties with the facts by skilfully reconstructing the story? Did Elvis enter into contract negotiations and exclusive management and promotional agreements on a Ferris wheel? I do not think so. Did the colonel sell “I hate Elvis” buttons? He did, and they sold as well as the love you Elvis badges.
The Steve Allen Show claiming Elvis ditches the gold lame suit for a tuxedo and sings for a bassett hound? Yeah! A truly overwhelming experience. Allen didn’t want the flashback from a previous appearance on the Milton Berle Show when Elvis squirmed and swayed between his legs in front of a distinguished American audience shaken by the brat’s unrepentant gyrations. Remember, Allen was no rock ‘n’ roll fan. A jazz snob by trade.
Did Elvis have a choice between the army and prison in 1957-58? Elvis was under a lot of pressure from right-wing Americans to right a perceived wrong. And the time spent in the army could persuade them that he had been freed from the grip of the devil. Elvis was passively on board, and it seemed like a great way to mend fences and get publicity rolling.
Did Elvis meet bride-to-be Priscilla while serving overseas? Yes! She was 14, a big fan and loved listening to music. In fact, 24-year-old actress Olivia DeJonge looks a lot like her. Born Priscilla Wagner, Wagner’s mother would remarry Quebecer and Air Force pilot Paul Beaulieu, and adopt her surname. In Wiesbaden, Germany, Priscilla meets Elvis in his rented room at a party on September 13, 1959.
The Colonel bragged that 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 Cleopatrain 1962. Elvis $1 million for absurd Middle Eastern comedy-thriller Harum Scarum in 1965. The film earned $2 million at the box office.
I watch Baz Luhrmann’s films not to check the facts, but for the experience. This feast of adventure on the big screen. There are rare moments of teary-eyed emotion, mostly dancing, beats, screaming teenagers, and a snake oil salesman munching on the edges. These moments of honesty and pain come across as filler. Instead, there’s rocking Elvis, brooding Elvis, and slow-death Elvis.
by Luhrmann Elvis took an unfair hit from critics. I understand. Critics have an agenda, a story to tell. In today’s rapid-response world, where a stranger alone with a computer can weigh in on world events, no matter how complicated and deceptive, the point system and hearsay attract people’s attention. Reviews read most rarely.
As for the movie, the intro hour rages on at a blistering pace. The camera work and editing keep the eyes glued to the dazzling sets, the relentless frenzy of movement and electricity of an artist ready to conquer the world. I wrote above that I considered that the film at 2 hours and 39 minutes could be reduced by half an hour. I was strapped into the car seat from hell in screening room 8 at the Varsity Cinema. I can rethink.
As for performance, Alton Mason kills as Little Richard. Gary Clark as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe? I want this movie done and Yola the concert. Shonka Dukurek as Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jimmy Rodgers, Kelvin Harrison Jr., BB King and David Wenham—Hank Snow. Just keep that cast together and make country blues and rock ‘n’ roll history. Stunning.
Elvis makes money with theaters that are only running at about 20% capacity. $64 million worldwide on an $85 million catch-up budget. Last year, 2021, Elvis the Artist, grossed $31 million. I expect that to double this season.
As for the indoor experience. We were ten seated for the first show. Anyway, catch him in the flesh. Next time, VIP seat.