Back when I was an undergrad, in my junior year, one of the classes I took was Artist Management, as it was required for my music business major. In that class, the professor curated the syllabus to highlight what a good, respectable, and honest artist manager would do for their artist to push their career forward and what a selfish, deceptive, untrustworthy manager would do. Diving in headfirst, you’d be surprised how many major, well-known artists are taken advantage of by their so-called trusted business partners who appear to have the artists best interest at heart, controlling every aspect of the business including finances to tour management to power of attorney, only to peel back the layers to expose years of fraud and lies – stealing millions of dollars and ruining reputations for selfish gain.
One of my many papers for this class was on this topic of managers taking advantage of artists, skimming money, taking a higher percentage of profits, and ultimately getting away with it. If memory serves correctly, my paper focused on Sting and Billy Joel and their management in breach of contract and fraud accusations. In my research, never did I come across the Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) situation in which his manager Colonel Thomas Parker (Tom Hanks) received 50% gross of everything Elvis made during their tenure together.
Knowing the music industry, a manger/business partner’s average percentage is roughly 10-20% of what the artist makes. Col Parker making 50% is astronomically unethical – taking advantage of a once in a lifetime talent like Elvis leaves a sour taste in the mouth for those working as an artist or a manager. Co-writer and director Baz Luhrmann explores this abuse of power from Col Tom Parker to pay off gambling debts and feed his unhealthy addictions. It’s one of the major plot points in this highly stylized glamour porn biopic which also follows the titled king of Rock and Roll’s life from the early stages, living in poverty to his heartbreaking death.
As a kid growing up in both Tupelo, Mississippi and then relocating to Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis is influenced by Gospel and Rhythm & Blues – mimicking and taking inspiration from well-known artists at the time and creating his own unique style of music that propelled Elvis to the top of the charts but also made him an icon. Early on in Luhrmann’s film, Elvis performs on stage as the Colonel discovers this raw talent that attracts a younger audience.
As the microphone hisses from the frequency change, and Elvis begins to sing and move his hips, a change washes over the sea of women attending this live radio show. Mass hysteria erupts as women lose control over themselves – screaming, whistling, and reaching in for a chance to touch Elvis in any way possible. It’s one of two moments that show the uncontrollable passion for Elvis in how he used his body as vessel for his music. Because of Austin Butler’s outstanding, award worthy performance and Luhrmann’s direction of these pivotal scenes, anyone watching will feel what these audiences felt when witnessing greatness. The sexual tension alone from Butler’s mysterious facial expressions is enough to cause fainting.
As biopic’s go, they all fall into the same categories – they all feature the same cookie-cutter template and familial tropes associated with a ton of broad strokes to them, never closing in on a particular moment or theme that defines the person’s life – just skimming the moment and moving on to the next hill to climb, never looking back. How the artist gets their start, rising to fame, some type of conflict that forces the artist to see the error in their ways and finishing with a tragedy.
Elvis lived 42 short years and Luhrmann’s film explores nearly every year with a jump in age here and there. Coming in at 159 minutes, Elvis is deceptively cut and edited to show significant moments in the musician’s only to be compounded by an excruciatingly slow-moving pace. Several times, Luhrmann could have wrapped up his story and it would have felt complete, but the next scene comes and its more of the same. Elvis’s issue with drugs and listening to Col Tom Parker who only had the worst intentions possible disguised as a friend and mentor. Promising an international tour, only to keep Elvis stateside playing shows at the International Hotel for 5 consecutive years.
I would have gladly taken any moment of Elvis alongside legendary B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) at a club in Memphis listening to music and being in an atmosphere that Elvis adored.
Elvis doesn’t work as well as it does without the performances and chemistry between Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. As I mentioned above, Butler’s performance is award worthy, this is the film where he becomes a star – for 2 hours and 40 minutes, I’m convinced Elvis starred in his own film alongside Hanks who is brilliant as the story’s narrator and villain – showing a different side to his skill set as the cunning, money obsessed snake.
Beyond Elvis and Col Tom Parker, also known as admiral by Elvis, Luhrmann explores Elvis’s home life – his alcoholic mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), father and business manager Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) but most importantly his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). Priscilla is this films moral compass when she’s on screen. It’s limited but Olivia DeJonge makes the most out of her appearance humbling a man with a drug problem while looking the other way as he commits adultery. It’s miraculous she stayed that long with him.
What sets Elvis apart from other rockstar biopics like Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody is a heavy dose of energy from Luhrmann’s direction. Every frame is supplemented with a high screeched well-known song that Butler himself recorded for the role – mostly the early days of his career at Sun Records or on RCA. If anyone was born for a role, it’s Butler – he embodies Elvis in every imaginable way. The glitz and glam will surely dazzle and keep the eye’s attention while the soothing voice of Elvis will do wonders on the ear drums.
What Luhrmann and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner’s script also does successfully is remind its audience that musician’s, whether how famous or not, are people too. This lifestyle though enticing and lucrative can be dangerous for a person’s mental health, destroying them from the inside out.
The story of Elvis Presley is tragic, it’s not a happy story, Lisa Marie lost her father at 9 years old. Every decision made by Col Tom Parker killed a little bit more of Elvis’s soul (as dramatically depicted). Elvis is undoubtedly an icon – he’s soulful, a rebel without a cause, a passionate man but he’s broken. And it took one man’s greed to push him farther off the edge.
Written By: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce & Jeremy Doner
Story By: Jeremy Doner & Baz Luhrmann
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann
Music By: Elliot Wheeler
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Olivia DeJonge
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 39 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%