'Elvis' explores life of pop culture icon

June 30, 2022
A scene from 'Elvis', showing Presley (Austin Butler) performing on-stage.
Directed by Baz Lurhmann
Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge
In cinemas

“In that moment, I saw that skinny young boy transform into a superhero. He was my destiny,” states Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) as he watches the young Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) wow the crowd while playing at the Louisiana Hayride in 1955, marking the beginning of the more than 20-year relationship between Parker and Presley.

In Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis, we see the complicated relationship between Presley and Parker — the man who acted as a father figure to him. Born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, Parker fled the Netherlands in 1929. By the mid-1930s, he had become a manager for various carnival performers and country music performers, such as Hank Snow, who later said “Tom Parker was the most egotistical, obnoxious human being I've ever had dealings with.”

Parker became Presley’s manager and persuaded RCA Victor to buy out his record contract from Sun Records for US$40,000. By 1956, this enabled Presley — who rose to prominence as a musician who integrated black and white music styles of the United States South area notorious for its racial segregation — to rise from regional star to the global cultural icon known famously as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Presley’s music and dance moves would drive crowds wild. The integration of black and white styles of music showed the revolutionary potential and rebelliousness of rock and roll, and its potential to break down racial barriers.

This was seen as a threat by conservative self-proclaimed “moral leaders”, mostly racist southern politicians who were desperate to maintain the segregation of the Deep South at a time when the civil rights movement was on the rise.

While Presley acknowledged his debt to black musicians — we see performances in the film from musicians such as Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard and BB King — the reality is that many of these performers were paid very little for their efforts.

While the exchange between the worlds of black and white music was not a one-way street, like the rest of race relations they remained unequal.

This reality is expressed when BB King tells Presley: “They might put me in jail for walking across the street, but you are a famous white boy.” Big Mama Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog” — reworked by singer Doja Cat — not Presley’s 1956 version, is played in the film, so that maybe is one way of addressing the power imbalance.

Recently, videos in on social media site TikTok have shown Presley’s cultural appropriation and treatment of women, especially in his relationship with Priscilla Beaulieu (Olivia DeJonge), who was 14 when then they began their relationship in 1959, while Presley was serving in the army in West Germany.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, it is not surprising that Presley’s treatment of women has been scrutinised. Despite the film playing off the start of Presley and Priscilla’s relationship as a teen romance, there still is a power imbalance. However, Priscilla has publicly refused to see herself as a victim of Presley and continues to manage the estate of her ex-husband, along with their daughter and family members — who have nothing but praise for Elvis.

While Presley’s story has often been sold as one of “a poor boy made good”, it’s clear that his success had become a golden cage subject to exploitation by Parker, who remained at heart a carnival huckster who viewed Presley as his cash cow. By the time of Presley’s death in 1977, he was taking 50% of his earnings, a tale of music industry exploitation sadly not uncommon, even today.

In many ways, Elvis is defined by Presley’s struggle for control over his career. When Presley was drafted into the army in 1958, Parker used it as a way of selling him as an all-American boy and stripping him of his rebelliousness. After returning to the US, Presley’s career was sidelined to making mostly mediocre B-grade movies. It meant that the social upheavals of the 1960s passed him by.

However, Presley stood up to Parker in 1968, who wanted that years’ Christmas special to be a bland performance. Instead, the black leather-clad Presley returned to his rock and roll roots, while the gospel part of his performance included “If I Could Dream”, in honour of civil rights leader Martin Luther King jnr, who he admired.

Presley made his comeback to live performances in 1969 with a triumphant series of shows at the newly opened Las Vegas Hilton International, with a mind to taking his performances overseas. Except for three shows in Canada in 1957, he never performed outside of the US. Whether because of Parker’s immigration status — he never held a US passport — or because he wanted to maintain control over his career, Presley never got to tour overseas.

By the 1970s, Presley became locked into performing the same venues, contributing to his ongoing prescription drug addiction and paranoia, never quite breaking free of Parker’s control.

Elvis is the kind of film that Luhrmann makes whether people like that style of film or not. Some of the storyline could have been condensed, as the later parts of it can be hard going — the film runs for nearly three hours, cut from another four more hours of footage. Despite this, I would still recommend Elvis if you want to be blown away by Butler’s portrayal of one of history’s most important pop culture icons in all his complicated glory.

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