Any biopic of Elvis must by necessity dedicate some time to his manager, Col Tom Parker. In the first interpretation, Pat Hingle portrayed him as a rather benign figure who reminisced of a time when he painted sparrows yellow and sold them as canaries. Opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Randy Quaid gave a scene-stealing performance as a huckster who could sell anything, even the sweat off a grape to a wino. Elvis and the Colonel: The Untold Story had Beau Bridges’ domination asserted from the outset, remarking “Once you know what leash to use, it don’t matter how big they get”. Yet in all these previous biopics, where the duo's initial meeting took place in a diner, it is Elvis who approaches the Colonel for help in managing his affairs. Not so Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. Here Tom Hanks circles his prey on a fairground, paying off cronies to corner the singer in a Hall of Mirrors and then isolate him on a Ferris wheel. Finally, with a geek banner fluttering none-too-subtly in the background, the Colonel makes his final pitch to turn Elvis into the world's greatest sideshow attraction.
In fact, 'Elvis and the Colonel' may have been a more appropriate title for this film. Opening with his impending death, the Colonel’s narration takes us through the key moments in Elvis’s life: the Colonel signing Elvis; the Colonel watching Elvis on stage; the Colonel orchestrating Elvis’s draft; the Colonel comforting Elvis after his mother’s death and so on. Yes, there are those moments where Elvis is front and centre but they are too often drowned out by dizzying camera moves and rapid-fire editing, leaving little room for any meaningful insight into the singer. The emotion invested into Elvis’ songs is absent elsewhere. We feel no pangs of heartache when his mother dies or marriage falls apart. But we do shed a tear when, against all odds, he gives a stirring rendition of ‘Unchained Melody’.
If Elvis’ life could be split into two halves (pre and post army), so too can this biopic. After a first half brimming with Luhrmann’s directorial flourishes, Butler finally has some space to breathe when Elvis takes control of his career. Giving perhaps the most faithful film interpretation of the King on stage, Butler’s performance during the ’68 Comeback Special and his Las Vegas debut is nothing short of outstanding. Likewise, Hanks has some of his better moments during these sequences, hilariously expecting ‘Here Come’s Santa Clause’ during a Christmas show and deceitfully committing Elvis to a five-year engagement at the Intercontinental Hotel.
Like most of Luhrmann’s films, Elvis is flawed but fascinating, succeeding most when it remembers who the real star of the show is. Or to put in another way –
A little less Baz Luhrmann, a little more Elvis please,
All this ostentation ain't satisfactioning me…
as Elvis Presley
as Priscilla Presley
as Steve Binder
as B.B. King
While it would be pointless to dissect all the fabrications in this film (The Colonel did not corner Elvis in a Hall of Mirrors or Ferris Wheel; Elvis singing ‘Trouble’ year before it was written) there are a few discrepancies worth highlighting –
Elvis never did discover the real reason Col Tom Parker was against overseas tours.
Elvis did not fire Col Tom Parker whilst performing on stage.
Priscilla did not arrange for Elvis to enter rehab after their divorce.
Biopic features a brief montage of scene recreations from Elvis’s movies. More impressive are the scene recreations from Elvis: That's the Way It Is and ‘Elvis Presley: Elvis '68 Comeback Special’.