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Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis': 10 best and worst moments

From the biopic's titular star Austin Butler’s spot-on swagger to Tom Hanks’ creepy Colonel Tom Parker
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By Vince Everett

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis has arrived in all its glitzy, gaudy glory. It’s a comic book version of Elvis Presley’s career; all primary colors and fast pacing, not big on depth, but with a lot of BIFF! BAM! POW! visual action. Luhrmann isn’t known for his restraint, and he’s crammed so much to see in every frame of Elvis that it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

It’s an entertaining romp, even if the filmmakers do play a bit fast and loose with the facts. There’s still much to enjoy, and a few things to be critical of as well:

  

What We Liked:

1. Austin Butler’s Elvis

A hands down winner. Even the less-than-stellar reviews agree that Butler turned in a mighty impressive performance as Elvis Aaron Presley. He has the King’s moves down, from the hyper-kinetic wild man he was in the 1950s to the lumbering, sweaty performer of later years (especially in an astonishing sequence from 1977 that starts out with Butler playing Presley, then turns into the real Elvis at the piano). He’s never less than compelling; expect a nomination for this Oscar-worthy performance.

2. The Louisiana Hayride Performance

Colonel Tom Parker is completely dazzled by Elvis’ turn at the Louisiana Hayride, and it’s easy to see why; Luhrmann has crafted it for maximum impact. Elvis starts out fumbling his way through “Baby, Let’s Play House,” then, seeing he’s not winning anyone over, jumps up the tempo and pumps up the hip swiveling; when his bandmates tell him it’s “wiggle” that’s inciting the crowd, he promptly goes for broke and throws himself into a full on bump-and-grind. It’s a moment that firmly sets Elvis on the road to stardom.

3. Parker’s Pitch

Presley’s manager is shown as a Machiavellian character from the get go, practically salivating at the idea of getting a money maker like Elvis in his clutches. In a perfect illustration of his manipulative manner, there’s a sequence of Parker pursuing Presley around the natural habitat where Parker felt the most comfortable; a carnival, an amusement center where every customer is a potential mark. When Presley wanders into a funhouse, Parker slithers in after him, amused when Elvis finds himself trapped in a hall of mirrors. “Feel like you don’t know how to get out?” Parker enquires, implying he’s just the man who can help. It’s a subtly sinister scene, showing Elvis as he’s first caught in Parker’s web.

4. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Elvis spends a fair amount of time showing the influence Black music had on Presley, from his attending a gospel revival meeting as a child to hanging out with B.B. King in Memphis. Some of the more thrilling moments are when Shonka Dukureh, as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, throws back her head and starts belting out “Hound Dog,” which Elvis would record in 1956. Yola Quartey, as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is seen swinging a guitar as she rocks her way through her 1945 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”

5. The 1960s Movies

In perhaps the film’s cleverest sequence, Elvis’ 1960s Hollywood years are condensed into a montage that has him walking through a bus as his Memphis Mafia buddies pop up like co-stars, strolling through the set of Live a Little, Love a Little, and finally shooting a waterskiing scene, surrounded by beautiful young women. Adding to the visual are the numerous references to Elvis’ other films placed along the way, from costume changes, to movie posters, to hairstyles. And Luhrmann nicely conveys how the pleasure of filmmaking declined by showing Elvis’ smile slowly fading as his waterskiing grinds to a halt.

  

What We Didn’t Like:

1. Tom Hanks’ Colonel Parker

He’s creepy and he’s kooky, mysterious and spooky…the film’s version of Colonel Tom Parker is odd enough that he wouldn’t have any problem fitting into the Addams Family. And his eccentricity is exaggerated by the weird accent Hanks adopts in his portrayal. It’s nothing like Parker’s real voice, as film and audio footage of him reveals. It’s this element, more than any other, that makes Parker more of a comical figure, instead of the shrewd con artist that he was.

2. Priscilla

There’s nothing wrong with Olivia DeJonge’s performance as Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ wife. It’s that she’s given so little to do. She’s presented as Elvis’ arm candy, without a mind or thoughts of her own; simply a decorative object (with no mention of the fact that she was 14 years old when Elvis, then 24, first put the moves on her). Finally, in the 1970s, she comes into her own, having two strong scenes: when she leaves Elvis due to his drug use (while claiming, not entirely believably, that she doesn’t care about his infidelities), and when she meets with him post-divorce, the latter scene especially sad because we see an Elvis who’s given up. More thoughtful scenes like this would’ve helped flesh out her character.

3. The Missing Elements

You couldn’t put everything about Elvis’ life into one film, but some of the absences are curious. There’s no mention of his Viva Las Vegas co-star Ann-Margret, with whom he had a serious affair that caused him to have doubts about his relationship with his girlfriend Priscilla. Of course, including that story would run counter to the film’s insistence that Priscilla was his one true love. The meeting Elvis had with President Nixon is likewise nowhere to be found; its very strangeness would seemingly make it irresistible for Luhrmann to film. As it turns out, he did film it, but the sequence was cut from the movie, leaving open the possibility it may yet appear in an extended Director’s Cut.

4. The Comeback Special

There was a lot of behind the scenes drama in the creation of the Singer Presents Elvis television show (now known as the “Comeback Special”). But you won’t find it in this movie, because the filmmakers have created their own “alternate universe” version. It was the show’s creative team that determined the direction of this legendary special, but the filmmakers opt to put Elvis in the driver’s seat. It’s true Parker wasn’t pleased with the lack of Christmas material, but neither was he as hapless as he’s shown in this segment; nor did the Singer Sewing Machine company (the show’s sponsor) ever threaten to file suit over the issue. The true story had more than enough real drama in it to rely on such a fabrication.

5. Aloha From Hawaii

There’s only a passing reference to this January 14, 1973 performance, which is regarded as the last major high point in Elvis’ career — which in itself makes you wonder why it was overlooked in the film. It’s also hyped as a worldwide broadcast, drawing a viewership of 1.5 billion people, neither of which is true. On the night of the show, it was broadcast live to Australia, Asia, and Pacific Rim countries; subsequent broadcasts to the rest of the world ran from January 20 to April 27 (US broadcast was on April 4). And the 1.5 figure is wildly inflated; as this excellent article from Elvis Australia shows. A viewing figure of, say, 500 million is still impressive, so why the need for hype? And why perpetuate the myth?

  

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