Monday July 18, 2022
Movie Review: Elvis (2022)
What’s the tragedy of Elvis?
The man sold more records than any solo recording artist in history and remade our culture. He opened it up racially and sexually. He supercharged it. He landed like a fucking bomb in middle-American living rooms and thrilled kids and perplexed and frightened and angered adults. He crossed lines he didn’t know existed. The generation gap became a chasm.
He also died drug-addicted and overweight on a toilet seat at age 42.
So what's his tragedy?
Baz Luhrmann’s answer is that Elvis wound up in the Mephistophelean clutches of a fat Dutch prick of a carnival barker named Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
My answer would be different.
Devil in Disguise
Just as reactions to Elvis in 1956 veered wildly, so, in the run-up to its release, reactions to “Elvis” veered wildly. I’d heard it got a 12-minute standing ovation at Cannes. I also heard it was awful, unwatchable, over-the-top crap. And then, counter to the counter, I heard it was the must-see movie of the summer.
To me, it’s neither unwatchable nor must-see. But I'm glad I saw it.
“Elvis” is kind of like Elvis’ career. It’s fun early, and yes, over-the-top and operatic (it’s Baz, baby), and then gets bogged down in the later years. It gives us Elvis ’56, zips through the Army and movie years to the ’68 comeback special, and then it’s all about the how and why of Vegas. Post-’68, we keep getting the same tragic note. Elvis works up the courage to defy the Colonel, and he’s about to go out and do it, and finally tour the world, baby, until the Colonel starts talking. Then we get the snow job, and Elvis buys it, and he winds up back in the penthouse suite of the International Hotel, trapped, pill popping, an old, Howard Hughes figure before his time, with the inevitable sad end on the toilet on the horizon.
You’d think one of those times, after he’d declared himself free, that his Memphis mafia friends and bandmates, Red or Scotty or Bill, would tell everyone, “OK, keep the fucking Colonel the fuck away from him!” Nope. Instead, Elvis is heading out the door, maybe into the parking garage, and there’s the Colonel again, and he begins talking again, and Elvis begins listening again. And everyone else just stands around and lets it happen.
So it’s a bit one-note. And is it tragic? He’s not caught in a trap, as he sings, because there’s a very easy way out. The Colonel gives him and his dad a bill for $7 million? Talk to a fucking lawyer. Shit, a good lawyer would just wipe this shitstain away—out of your life and probably out of the country. He’d wind up owing you $7 mil.
I think the tragedy of Elvis is this: He was wholly unique, a sexy, gender-bending sponge of blues and R&B and country and gospel music, loving all of it, and yet in his heart he wanted to fit in with the dullest people in our culture. When he first went to Sun Records, he was doing standards, he was doing what he thought people wanted, and it was others, notably Sam Phillips, who realized that his true passion—what became rock ‘n’ roll—was the path. I think when he emerged on the scene, he was shocked by the shock he caused. He was just doing what his body did, singing what it wanted to sing, and half the country thought he was a menace or a joke or a freak. The north mocked him as a hillbilly and the hillbillies condemned him for singing race music. He was viewed as a rebel but never reveled in it. He never had the “Fuck you” gene like John Lennon did. Can you imagine if he’d had that? With Lennon’s wit? Holy shit.
The comeback special is considered this great triumph—Elvis is singing in front of us again!—but to me it’s a little sad. It’s Elvis being embraced by all the elements that were horrified in ’56. Because by ’68, he’s the comfortable one. He’s a good ol’ boy singing good ol’ songs, not like those LSD-takin’ hippie freaks singing about revolution.
No, it’s easy for the Devil to tempt you if he’s giving you what you want. And what Col. Tom offered was a lot of what Elvis wanted. That’s the tragedy.
I wish Baz had stayed on the Louisiana Hayride longer. I’m a sucker for the thing becoming the thing, and that was the Louisiana Hayride. He was singing worlds into being. He was singing the future into being.
I wish Baz had gone deeper, too. I learned a few things—the Capt. Marvel Jr. fixation, for one—but he never gave us a deep Elvis. Maybe there wasn’t one? I could’ve stayed on Beale Street longer, too. We get Shonka Kukureh as Big Mama Thornton singing the bluesy “Hound Dog” and Alton Mason as the truly gender-bending Little Richard singing “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and we get inklings of a friendship with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) but not much else. Was there resentment? “They’re taking our music. He’s talking our music.” And what was the deal about the funeral he couldn’t attend? And did Elvis ever give three seconds’ thought to the Civil Rights Movement or was he too busy trying to fit in with the worst elements of our society?
The kid is great. Austin Butler doesn’t quite look like Elvis, but the longer the movie goes on the more he does. And his moves are dead-on. Apparently the singing is partly him, too. It’s tough to take on a much-imitated role like this and not slide into impersonation, and he succeeds in making him seem as much of a person as the script allows.
Not so Hanks’ Col. Tom. He’s so grotesque you wonder how he could sweet-talk anyone.
I also learned about Elvis’ fear of assassination—after MLK and RFK in ’68—but I thought it was going to lead to the meeting with Pres. Nixon and his junior G-man badge, or whatever the fuck he was given. Baz doesn’t go there. He shows us Elvis becoming obsessed with guns and security but not how karate fits into all that. Elvis feared some outsider coming to take it all, but that person was on the inside, and it wasn't even really Col. Tom Parker. It was Elvis himself. We're always our own worst enemies.
The Blytheville, Ark. Courier News: Jan. 19, 1955