Ringmaster Baz Luhrmann's Elvis at Cannes

By Moira Jean Sullivan

Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated Elvis that debuted at Cannes in May is an enticing seductive film by an innovative film artist. Unfortunately, the film has more to do  with Tom Hank’s role as Elvis’s business manager Tom Parker than Elvis. Luhrmann controls the camera and editing in making Parker the main attraction with this narrative about the man who claimed he "made" Elvis. Putting Hanks in almost every scene is a major flaw. The film begins with the death of Parker and a voice over that this is his story. Could this be atonement for Elvis that this business manager robbed the artist of his life and true artistry? Closeups, cutaways, and reactions of this corpulent, oily gambler make one incredulously wonder how Elvis let him  have so much control over him. The film shows that Elvis knew about this hypnotic con man and tried to stop him. As a magnificently talented man he ironically left his career to be managed by a megalomaniac.

The emphasis on the story of Dutchman Colonel Parker, Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, in Elvis and how he embezzled Elvis and financially ruined him should be renamed "Parker." The misleading title of Colonel was bestowed on him for an honorary part in the Louisiana state militia for his management of Jimmie Davis campaign to become the governor of Louisiana.

Another enigma is why Luhrmann allowed Tom Hank’s role rob the wonder of his film about Elvis? It is indeed a circus act from the world of old-fashioned show business suckering spectators with the promise of entertainment for the price of admission. To Luhrmann's credit, however, Elvis shows that the popularity of Elvis had to do with his being a showman that unleashed the pent-up sexual repression of America’s 50’s.

Hidden behind tons of latex and fat props and an accent that is far from Dutch, Luhrmann idolises Hanks, and his reverence to the 66-year-old actor surpasses his love of Elvis. It is virtually impossible to focus on Elvis with Hanks appearing in every scene, a composite Zelig and Forest Gump altering the history of this folk hero. When the lights go up on Elvis on stage, Hank’s pasty schnoz is a frequent match and his irritating unpolished diction is constant noise. It makes it difficult to focus on what is outstanding about this film with Parker popping up all the time.

The beginning of the film focuses on Elvis’ roots in gospel and blues music. Luhrmann returns to these roots during the film.  Presley’s controversial performance was criticized because he moved like a black man and his eroticism on stage was like a black man. The media sold this as "White Boy with Black Hips", "Elvis the Pelvis" playing "Voodoo Devil Music".

Luhrmann depiction of repression in the 1950's is part of Elvis folklore on how hysterical white women of all ages become when he is on stage and how his movements sexually excite them so much that they can't help but stand up and scream uncontrollably. His movements were not only sexualized but stylized. Martial arts gave his movements a form when he later joined the  US Army in 1958 for two years which are unmistakable in scenes from Elvis' shows in the film. 

Two songs by black artists that had influence on Presley are featured. In "That’s All Right Mama" by blues singer Arthur Crudup, a black woman dances lasciviously to a song about a black snake while Elvis watches through a peephole. Big Mama Thornton 's "You Ain't nothing but a Hound Dog" is sung in a diner which Elvis later adapts for his shows. The influence of Beale Street music and his friendship with B.B. King took place at a time when Parker wanted Presley to dress like a butler on stage. Parker caters to conservative forces by trying to censor Elvis's roots in black culture, barking that Martin Luther King inspired youth to juvenile delinquency. Presley escapes to Beale Street to authenticate his roots. It is after all these roots that captured the imagination of Parker of a young soul with oily hair and 'girlie makeup'. His music choices shown in the film also included Polk Salad Annie by Swamp Fox Tony Joe White in 1968. 

Austin Butler was an excellent choice to play Elvis and his bravado permeates the film as much as it can when not eclipsed by Parker's image. Catherine Martin’s showmanship with costumes and set design and makeup are outstanding and perhaps she is the real showman of this film with Luhrmann as ringmaster. Elvis’s costumes are commanding as is the set design for his stage and TV appearances.

Priscilla Presley decided on the Luhrmann project because of her confidence in the filmmaker.  Little is made though of Presley's relationship with Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) and his home life with his daughter. His career demise, the crash and burn trajectory of the narrative accelerates with Priscilla's divorce after years of her husband's neglect and substance abuse. More is made of his family of origin and 'hillbilly friends"  and his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) who hit the bottle when Presley was sent overseas to escape a jail sentence for his vivacious stage shows.

It is not only Parker that tries to package Presley as a gimmick singing songs in ugly Christmas sweaters but the influence of television producers with set designs like Jailhouse Rock where Presley did his own choreography. In satellite uplinks a world could watch  Elvis and the infamous Las Vegas shows with Parker at helm feeding his gambling addiction. Here Elvis did his last performance after years of substance abuse. The unreal of Elvis meets the real of newsreel footage as the superstar's recording of "In the Ghetto" closes with the credits.

© 2022 - Moira Jean Sullivan: 05/25/22
Movie Magazine International