‘Elvis’ reveals, revels in flaws of musician biopic mantra

Austin Butler beat out several higher-profile actors for the right to a revelatory performance as Elvis. Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

7/10 I usually can’t stand biopics or the work of writer/director/producer Baz Luhrmann, but the pair of formulas complement each other perfectly in Elvis.

Las Vegas, Jan. 20, 1997- Lying in his hospital bed in the hours between a stroke and his resulting death the following morning, “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) remembers his career managing Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), all the way from first meeting and signing him in the Deep South in 1956 until he had to return to his home planet in 1977.

Parker’s memory is a celebration of Elvis, one that frequently bumps against the walls of his infamous mismanagement. He calls attention to the ways he impeded Elvis’ career with his preemptive excuses for them, and the film becomes his unintentional confession.

Elvis is formulaic to a fault, as should be expected. It’s got everything, the montage where he’s having a lot of success, the scene where he meets his wife who’s mostly gone for the rest of the movie, the scene where they have to drag a drugged-out performer onstage for the show, all the hits, all the big ones, all the good ones, you see one of these things and you’ve seen a million of them.

There’s a lot of Luhrmann typifiers as well. He’s known for the glitz and glamour and gayness that make him a great choice for an Elvis movie, but it’s a lot lower level than that. The story is told by a background character, as seen in Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, with a consistent jukebox element, present in Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, both tropes lending themselves much more easily in Elvis to the story of a performer who wrote few of his own songs.

Where more haphazard pictures of the same formula rattle chaotically from dramatic highwater moment to dramatic highwater moment in the subject’s life, Elvis is smoothed out and dreamlike, floating from lavish Luhrmann set to lavish Luhrmann set in Parker’s half-dead stupor. The movie is almost impossible to pin down through its 159-minute runtime, rarely staying in a scene for more than a few moments, but that’s because it’s meant to be one giant scene.

Elvis develops a subtly distinct look with powerful white underlighting and a gentle touch with the saturation, giving it a sharp high-contrast look while feeling unmanipulated when its in motion.

It’s hard to overstate how much the framing device helps Elvis’ walk through the conventional narrative feel fresh and pointed. During Presley’s first performances, when all the women in the audience rocket out of their seats as if propelled by exploding Bartholin’s glands and he’s pelted with underwear, scenes that appear interchangeable with satires of the genre, or when seemingly every plot detail is common knowledge like the pinky finger incident or the “I hate Elvis pins,” it makes total sense in the context of being walked through this legend by someone who shaped it and wants it to be remembered without challenge or controversy in the specific light he cast it in. These biopics are all the same because they aren’t really stories, they’re a mantra about American superstars and the world they birth and explode in, and in Elvis, what we’re seeing is a man who profited from that mantra repeating it in an effort to bolster his own legacy.

The tragedy reveals itself sharply and suddenly as Parker stays focused on his own troubles and pushes Elvis’ deteriorating health to the background. For all his talent, for Butler’s transformational performance, Elvis isn’t the main character of his own story, not just in this movie’s choice to frame it as Parker’s, but in fact – he wasn’t making his own decisions. Where other biopics frame musicians as complex and tortured and done in by their own decisions with strange uniformity, Elvis portrays a man powerless in a system that mines his talents and alienates him from the profits. What really twists the knife is the joy Elvis still takes from live performances even as he realizes he will die with many dreams unfulfilled, joy that is still being related back to us by the man who’s holding him down.

This brings us back to the question of why it took so long for Elvis to come together when it’s such an iconic version of this mantra, an annual Oscarbate tradition going back before this century, and somewhat darkly, the answer is contained within that mantra. The film notes that Elvis signed an outrageous percentage of his earnings to Parker and owned few of his own songs, meaning he and his estate don’t get residuals for performances, but it glosses over that Lisa Marie Presley, the sole inheritor of her father’s estate and the gatekeeper to the rights for this film, is out of cash. Just as Parker is repeating the mantric story of the American music superstar in-story to defend his own wealth, Lisa Marie Presley is authorizing its repetition from without as a final line of credit.

Forty-five years later, Elvis and performances of him are still at the service of someone else’s financial troubles.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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