By Eleanor Tait
Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ has been highly anticipated in our household since production began in January 2020. In particular, it has been a source of excitement for my grandma as a lifelong Elvis fan. A worry that Luhrmann’s unique style, and the potential revelation of uncomfortable aspects of the King’s life, might become a source of disappointment and disenchantment, therefore, emerged.
Thankfully, my family trip to the cinema more than put me at ease. Luhrmann’s careful handling of the relationship between Elvis (played to perfection by Austin Butler), and his insatiable, money-grabbing manager, Colonel Tom Parker (an excellent and utterly revolting performance from Tom Hanks), ensured we left almost entirely confident that Parker was the villain inciting the tragedy of Elvis’ life, despite Parker’s efforts to persuade us to blame ourselves, suggesting that Elvis’ love for the audience was his fatal flaw.
Ultimately, the film’s portrayal of Parker’s unceasing interference, and Elvis’ own vulnerability, is more persuasive. Luhrmann suggests that, while the love of the audience motivated Elvis’ pursuit of performance, it was Parker who took advantage of his dedication to this and should, therefore, be considered the instigator of his downfall.
This was a rare experience of a film that made you desperate to change history, highlighting each moment in Elvis’ career when you wish someone would have said ‘enough is enough’. It is partly the purpose of any form of art or literature investigating the past to help us recognise these moments.
The film fascinatingly explored how Elvis’ music taste and performance style were influenced by the largely African American community in which he grew up, and a culture of blues and gospel music. It’s more than about time its influence on his success was acknowledged, as well as the nature of Elvis’ appeal to the industry — a good-looking white boy singing the music of the segregated and racially discriminated against. This is a film which doesn’t only explore Elvis Presley the man, but Elvis the performer as a phenomenon of American culture.
I think it’s also a testament to Luhrmann’s talents that, by the end of its 160-minute running time, the viewers on either side of our family group were sobbing so hysterically that our row of seats was shaking almost as much as Elvis’ hips. The refreshed sympathy we gain for Elvis, contributes to what becomes a hugely impactful moment, as Butler (in fantastic make-up, prosthetics and costumes which should be applauded across the film) recreates Elvis’ final performance of ‘Unchained Melody’. Luhrmann blends this into the real-life performance. Witnessing how far Elvis had deteriorated from his youth under Parker’s influence, and the condition it had put him in, straining at the piano, is utterly heart-breaking and will draw more pity than you’d expect. Yet what stood out most, was his determination to go on in this performance — both admirable and tragic. You’ll never think of, or listen to, Elvis in the same way again.
It only remains to praise Luhrmann, Hanks and Butler, and all others involved in what was a truly spectacular production with stunning visuals and excellent employment of music. Frankly, the fact that my mother came home and belted ‘American Trilogy’ at eleven at night and that my grandma spent the whole drive home singing the film’s praises (sigh of relief), meant it was good enough for me.
Image: Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash