Elvis’ hips shake while the movie stumbles
Baz Luhrmann takes Elvis Presley’s life story and turns it into a superhero movie in which the villain wins.
“Elvis” is an odd, unsatisfying film, one that simultaneously mythologizes Presley and reduces him to a human vibrator, a singer whose greatest talent was bringing a tingle to his (mostly) female fans.
A more accurate title might have been “The Colonel,” because the movie, if anything, is about Colonel Tom Parker, who was Presley’s manager, master and manipulator. He opens the story, and he survived 20 years after Presley’s death in 1977.
But Parker remains an enigma 159 minutes later. He was a self-proclaimed colonel who avoided military service. He’s presented as a man without a passport who likely made up his name and his West Virginia backstory.
But the screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner doesn’t crack that facade or speculate on what lurks behind the manufactured image. It portrays Parker as a con man, someone who made his bones on the carny circuit tricking customers out of their money. It’s the approach he continued to take, even when he had a product worth buying.
Parker may have been the first person to believe in Presley, but he managed his career like he was determined to squeeze every last dollar out of him as quickly as he could before the public decided Presley was just another bearded lady with a glued-on beard.
If Parker is an enigma, Presley essentially is portrayed as a likable cipher, a talented singer whose good intentions often are thwarted by Parker’s business demands. The man they called “The King” spends most of his movie as a pawn.
To the film’s credit, it questions how much of a “King” Presley was. There are scenes featuring black Memphis artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (played by Yola and Gary Clark Jr., respectively), showing the acts that Presley drew inspiration from or appropriated from, depending on one’s viewpoint.
And a scene with Little Richard performing in a juke joint makes it clear the only advantage Presley had over Richard Penniman was skin color. It certainly wasn’t talent.
The first half hour, 45 minutes of “Elvis” plays like nearly every other entertainer biofilm ever made with young Elvis as an unknown with big dreams, winning over skeptical audiences and