Greed, a favorite movie theme of movies, can strike gold when mixed with ego, power, and a shrewd filmmaker. Few films show this successful combination more artistically and viscerally than Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. The film also seems destined for commercial success.
Luhrmann’s account is historically faithful to the beginning, rise and fall of one of popular music’s most enduring icons. With an outstanding performance from Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, the film’s visuals are stunning. The editing is frenetic in places, but clever and reflects the tone of the story. The images thoughtfully connect critical themes, events and emotionally transcendent moments in Elvis’ life.
Making Things Happen Through A Villain’s Point Of View
More controversially, Luhrman tells Presley’s story using the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the entertainer’s personal manager for more than two decades. In popular culture, and with more than a little justification, Parker is a villain in the Elvis story.
An illegal Dutch immigrant who never obtained American citizenship, Parker was above all a promoter. He worked carnivals before establishing himself as a music promoter in the 1930s. Traveling throughout the Jim Crow South, he worked with leading country music groups. One such deed would go on to become Governor of Louisiana, who conferred on Parker the honorary rank of “Colonel” in the state militia.
This experience as a showman and promoter is key to understanding Parker’s increasingly delusional perspective as he navigates Elvis’ career through obfuscation, clever misrepresentation, trickery and personal ambition.
The film remains focused on the rise of a popular icon
Yet Luhrmann’s film remains focused, never allowing Elvis stray too far from the real story of this culturally transforming artist. Audiences see Elvis’ triumphs as he inspires young audiences, especially young girls, as the tragedy of misplaced faith in people and unbalanced life choices. Nonetheless, clever dialogue and a masterful performance from Tom Hanks ensure audiences see an authentic Elvis despite the Colonel’s increasingly yellow eyes.
The discovery and rise of Elvis Presley is one of those historic moments where the unchecked pursuit of personal profit at first gives way to broad social benefit. Rhythm and Blues was a niche genre and rock music was nascent. Presley changed the course of popular music.
Luhrmann refreshingly grounds the story of Elvis in African American rhythm and blues (R&B) and gospel. These are the sounds that inspired Elvis. While he had little formal training and couldn’t read music, he had good instincts. Elvis started in Tupelo, Mississippi. By the time he was a teenager, however, he was in Memphis. He frequented the famous Beale Street, the now famous home of the city’s blues artists and performers.
Transcend white supremacy
Elvis’ counter-cultural and energetic performances made him an ideal vehicle to introduce a wider white audience to black R&B. It has also drawn the ire of cultural conservatives and white supremacists, particularly, but not exclusively, in the South.
The film credits Parker with seeing the bigger picture and the benefits of launching his act nationwide. This popularity put Elvis and Parker in the crosshairs of cultural conservatives and white supremacists. Much of the protest focused on Presley’s provocative use of his hips and other “gyrations” that prompted young audiences.
These differences began to drive a wedge between Parker’s personal interests and Presley’s roots and creative passions. Disagreements and conflicts emerged remarkably early. They often risked permanently severing Parker’s lucrative relationship with Elvis.
Divergent Ambitions Drive Plot
Lurhmann’s script does a good job of using these contrasting ambitions to create the tension that drives the story forward. One particularly notable example nearly derailed his career. As Elvis gained national audiences, he was invited to appear on major primetime television entertainment shows. His breakthrough was with Milton Bearle, but would soon include Ed Sullivan and others.
Comedian Steve Allen has infamously refused to book Elvis unless he dresses and performs more conservatively. He dressed in a black suit with tails and sang a slower, melodic version of what would become an iconic rockabilly version of Hound Dog for a basset hound.
Using Colonel Tom Parker’s point of view as a foil to Elvis’ personal and professional ambition is a bold and creative choice.
Did Elvis’ performance ambitions lead to his downfall?
The tension between Parker’s need to earn money to support his acting habit and Elvis’ performance ambitions keeps the tension going throughout the film. As Elvis becomes more popular, Parker thwarts efforts to send him on an international tour (for reasons he does not reveal to Elvis). Still, Elvis is not spared for finally giving in to Parker’s persuasive arguments to continue performing in the United States.
Who bears the responsibility for the fall of Elvis? Throughout the film, Elvis struggles with his desire to entertain and take on adult responsibilities to manage his career. Parker certainly did Elvis a disservice. But poor judgment on Presley’s part contributed to tragic effect.
Mix of ambition and greed leading to a tragic end
The audience leaves the film Elvis see Parker as a villain. But it’s a mixture of heart, greed and narcissism. In part, that’s because Parker is surprisingly honest (in his storytelling) even as he deludes himself about his positive influence on Elvis’ personal life and career.
Overall, Baz Lurhman Elvis provides a shrewd account of the beginning, rise and tragic fall of the king of rock and roll. Elvis is a well-crafted, visceral film that serves as a cautionary tale of conflicting interests. It is also a warning about how the uncontrolled combination of greed and ambition can have tragic consequences.