Less is more. Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann has directed six films from 1992 to date. Twenty years though, is enough to place him as one of the great movie directors in recent times.
His directorial debut occurred precisely in 1992 with “Strictly Ballroom”, followed in 1996 by “Romeo and Juliet” and in 2001 by his most successful production to date, “Moulin Rouge!” It took seven years for him to develop “Australia.” Then, in 2013, he made his most profitable production, “The Great Gatsby.” And now, in 2022, he returns with the lavish, delirious, and feverish “Elvis,” where Austin Butler plays an outstanding performance as the king of rock, while Tom Hanks plays the sinister agent of the iconic singer, General Tom Parker.
Luhrmann’s cinematography is visually stunning. He mixes the classic, the traditional and the modern. He has a Baroque style and recreates shows over shows. He is also a film director who brings Hollywood to Australia and vice versa. The visual techniques of his productions superimpose scenes that do not unfold chronologically. His narrative jumps from today to yesterday back forth, making his stories fascinating but, certainly, overwhelming and he ends up leaving the audiences exhausted. Before becoming a film director, Luhrmann was an actor and stage director, which gives him invaluable experience for the complex mise-en-scènes that he has given us these 20 years.
Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is very different from the “Elvis” miniseries directed by James Steven Sadwith, and broadcast on CBS in 2005, or the “Elvis” of John Carpenter of 1997. It is also different from the funny and entertaining “Elvis and Nixon” film of 2016, which focuses on the meeting the two men had in December 1971 at the White House.
In “Elvis” the miniseries the king of rock is masterfully played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers – who was awarded a Golden Globe for his performance. Yet the story is limited to his ascendance to stardom until the 1968 comeback special. Elvis’ Las Vegas trajectory is not included. The narrative is chronological, without disruptions, neither flashback. The villain in this case is played by Randy Quaid, as Colonel Parker.
In contrast, Luhrmann’s “Elvis”, with Austin Butler blazing with energy for nearly three hours, traces Tupelo, Mississippi’s prodigal son through his early years until his death in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 42. The film grabs the viewer from the start. With those narrative flashbacks that characterize Luhrmann, garnished with various songs of the king of rock, the director tells the story of the protagonist as perceived by his nemesis, Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks plays the villain, which is unusual, but he does it masterfully). Today it is known that the so-called Colonel was an undocumented immigrant of Dutch origin and his real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kujik. He was an eccentric and opportunistic character who represented Presley throughout his career.
Colonel Parker managed Elvis’s career, getting him contracts with the RCA label as well as in the film industry in Hollywood. It also took him to Las Vegas, where Elvis consolidated his career and forced locals and strangers to go to the sin city to witness “the greatest show on earth.” It is clear that Colonel Parker is in no way the Brian Epstein of The Beatles, nor the Stig Anderson of ABBA. Epstein received between ten and 25 percent of the Beatles’ profits, depending on how much the band sold. Of course, it is now known that he gave up rights to marketing the brand of the legendary band from Liverpool for up to 90 percent, which was excessive.
Stig Anderson was not a better agent than Epstein. Co-author of some of ABBA’s greatest hits, he was their manager and looked after contracts, as well as the investments and funds of Polar Music studio. In the mid 80’s, when ABBA had disbanded – it was never official since last year they returned as “ABBAtars” – it was known that there was a lot of money generated by the group that was missing. Thus, three of the four (former) members of ABBA – Benny, Björn and Agnetha – sued Anderson and in 1991 a settlement was reached between the parties for an undisclosed amount.
In contrast to Epstein and Anderson, Colonel Parker was by far extremely abusive. He retained 50 percent of Elvis Presley’s revenues and the marketing rights to his image. In those days, Priscilla, wife of the king of rock, commented that Elvis was not very interested in taking care of his own finances and neither did he look for another agent because he believed Parker worked hard to get him contracts and that it was okay for him to take half of his earnings.
In any case, and most to the surprise of the audiences, in Luhrmann’s film, Colonel Parker claims he did not kill Elvis – through the exploitation and pressure he put on him, even preventing Presley from taking his show around the globe and insisting that he set his base of operations at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. No. Parker suggests that Elvis’s death was for love, for the love of his audience. This statement makes sense when you look at how Elvis rose to stardom.
A member of a nuclear family, Elvis Aaron Presley was born in 1935, when the Great Depression was hurting the American economy and society. Elvis would have had a twin, Jesse, but he died before being born. Elvis’s mother lived tormented by that loss and would overprotect Elvis. There were no more brothers or sisters. The family had a hard time. The father was sent to jail for having committed a fraud and the young Elvis wanted to contribute to a better life for his family.
Thus, after his father gave him a guitar, Elvis began to sing and made his first recordings at Sun Records, the local label. One of his public presentations witnessed by Colonel Parker lead the ambitious man to offer his services as an agent. Then, the contract with RCA together with a meteoric career would take place but rock, in a racist and polarized society, was not accepted by various sectors. Neither was it pleasant that this young white man sang “black music,” as some politicians and conservative organizations judged rock ’n roll. Elvis defied segregation and that was almost a sin. Less acceptable for conservatives was the hip movement (“Elvis the pelvis”) that he performed when on stage and which drove his audiences crazy.
Faced with the possibility of going to prison, Elvis was convinced by Colonel Parker that he should go to Europe to serve in the armed forces for two years. Elvis’s mother, saddened by the estrangement of her son, who would leave for Germany, dies. In Germany, Elvis meets Priscilla with whom he would get married some years later. Upon his return from Germany, Elvis did not achieve the film success he wanted. And his songs did not reach a new generation of rock lovers, who were hooked on The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other bands and singers. It is with a his famous comeback TV special in 1968 – the year his first and only daughter, Lisa Marie, was born – that he returns to the taste of an adoring audience and resumes his successful career.
In 1972 Elvis and Priscila filed for divorce, which marked the beginning of a debacle for the king of rock. Although he had huge success in Las Vegas and fulfilled his recording commitments for RCA, his health deteriorated rapidly due to drug consumption and being overweight. Elvis passed away on August 16, 1977 at the age of 42.
Luhrmann in his extraordinary biopic shows an Elvis who went from personal/family and difficult times to stardom very quickly. He got all the luxurious goods he wanted but he also wasted a lot of money on friends. A gambling addict who owed thousands of dollars to mafias, Colonel Parker vowed to keep Elvis in Las Vegas against the singer’s wishes to do other things. Here, of course, it can be argued that Elvis was an adult and should have been able to set limits for his agent or fire him and find another. There are several times in the movie where Elvis wants to break with Colonel Parker, but ends up giving in to his agent’s wishes.
Elvis, according to Lurhmann, is a tormented young man who exemplifies the end of the nuclear family, the crisis of institutions, the loss of innocence and the rise of drug intake in a country that is the largest consumer on a planetary scale. With a weak father who succumbs to the financial benefits of Elvis’s career, the king of rock is abandoned from birth: by his twin Jesse; by his mom; by his father; by Priscilla and eventually the only one that’s left is Colonel Parker. Yes, it’s true that Colonel Parker benefited from Elvis’s success, but Elvis doesn’t seem to have done much to change things. Perhaps that codependency between Elvis and Colonel Parker was the only thing left for the king of rock. That is why Elvis’ rise was so brilliant and his decline so grotesque.
Luhrmann takes the opportunity to depict the costs of stardom, the ugly face of the entertainment industry, the role played by agents who benefit from singers, actors, athletes, etcetera, placing their interests first even if this comes at the expense of the goose that lays golden eggs. Besides that, Elvis is a must see. It is possibly the best film on the big screen right now and maybe in 2022. Just a warning: it’ll leave you exhausted.
Editor’s Note: The above movie review was penned by María Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The review appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Rosas can be reached via email at:[email protected].
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