What I Learned From “Elvis”

I couldn’t fully appreciate Elvis Presley’s music until I got a little older and developed the ability to compartmentalize two things: 1. Elvis was a generational talent with one of the silkiest voices in pop history, and 2. Elvis got famous by appropriating sounds from Black gospel and blues artists. So, when settling in to watch Baz Luhrmann’s much-hyped Elvis biopic, I was hoping for a fresh, nuanced perspective on this controversial, still-captivating icon. Here’s what I learned instead:

1. Colonel Tom Parker was Rumpelstiltskin

Ever fallen under the comforting spell of a great Tom Hanks performance, where his natural charisma, disarming humor and palpable vulnerability make you feel like you’re getting to know a real person? This is not one of those performances. For reasons I can’t fathom, Hanks portrays Elvis’s manager Col. Tom Parker with the mustache-twirling hamminess of a straight-to-video Disney villain, always lurking in the shadows and tittering demonically, gazing at Elvis (who he calls “my wiggling boy”) like Rumpelstiltskin stalking a first-born child. Even less defensible is the totally invented accent Hanks deploys, a cryptkeeper-meets-Goldmember cackle that gets really old, really fast.

2. Elvis Presley was Forrest Gump

Perhaps in part because he spends so much time showing Tom Parker peeking out from underneath the bleachers like a Southern-fried Pennywise, Baz Luhrmann tells Elvis’s story like a kid bullshitting a book report, cramming in only the most famous events of his life even though this movie runs well over two hours. So instead of seeing Elvis as an autonomous human being, we watch him get blown around the decades like a Gump-ian feather (do we need to see him reacting to every famous 1960s assassination?). As a result, the person who shaped 20th century culture as much as anyone ends up blurring into the background.

3. I killed Elvis

“I’ll tell you what killed him,” Col. Tom hisses at the camera toward the end of the film. “It was love. Love for all of you.” My reward for sitting through this coke-addled insult of a jukebox musical? Being accused of murder.

4. Nothing

It’s unfair to expect a biopic to be both educational and entertaining. But Elvis is so disinterested in its subject that it doesn’t even bother to have a point of view about him. Luhrmann bends over backwards to avoid tackling Elvis’s complicated relationships with race, drugs, food, and his mother – not to mention his courting of a 14-year-old Priscilla when he was 24 – always whipping ahead to the next montage before we can start to ask questions. For this director’s purposes, Elvis Presley is a good-looking excuse for brighter lights, quicker cuts, and rhinestonier rhinestones. If anything, I left the theater feeling like I knew less.

5. Colonel Tom Parker was also the Leprechaun

Just try and tell them apart!

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