Elvis is a traditional biopic that utilizes Baz Luhrmann’s natural flair and love of cinema to elevate beyond the traditional biopic. By that, I mean there are some themes and subtleties worth talking about in a bit more detail.
- Why it’s called Elvis
- Elvis as a commentary on celebrity
- Elvis and Amadeus
- Elvis and King Kong
- Did Colonel Parker really have a heart attack or hurt his back?
- Who was Colonel Tom Parker?
- Why is there modern music in Elvis?
- Did Elvish actually like Captain Marvel Jr.?
- Did Austin Butler sing in Elvis?
Why it’s called Elvis
“It’s a movie about Elvis. It makes sense to call it Elvis.” I know it could be that simple. But look at some of the other really famous biopics about musicians: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocket Man, Straight Outta Compton, Walk the Line, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Funny Girl. It’s actually rather uncommon for biopics to use the name of the character. There’s Ray but most go a little less literal and opt for something with some poetics to it. Looking beyond simply musicians we have: The King’s Speech. Braveheart. Catch Me If You Can. The Wolf of Wall Street. The Iron Lady.
It’s possible Lurhmann went with the straightforward option just because it’s the straightforward option. But I feel like there’s a little bit more to it. That’s because of a conversation that takes place in the movie between Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) and Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge). It’s their last conversation. They’re in the back of Elvis’s car and Priscilla just offered him a way out, an arrangement to get away from Vegas and performing and go to a facility on the west coast where he can rest. Elvis is clearly tired and has suffered a series of losses. He lost Priscilla. He lost his freedom. He’s lost his health. He’s a slave to Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) thanks to Parker’s sneaky manipulation of finances.
Instead of responding to Priscilla’s offer to rest, Elvis says, “I’m going to be forty soon. Forty… And nobody’s going to remember me. I never did anything lasting.” And he truly believes it. He’s convinced he’s been reduced to nothing. That his star rose, fell, and expired. The irony of the moment increases the tragedy of it. We, the audience, know better. This is ELVIS PRESLEY. He literally has the Guinness World Record for “Best-Selling Solo Music Art of All Time.” His name is known throughout the world to this day, nearly 50 years after his passing.
It’s a very poignant scene as it’s essentially Elvis resigning himself to an early demise and telling his ex-wife goodbye. After that, he gets on the plane, and the film transitions to the epilogue. So that last conversation with Priscilla is a really important one. And I think the emphasis Luhrmann placed on legacy is key to why the movie has such a literal name. By calling it Elvis rather than, say, Unchained Melody, you emphasize legacy. You eternalize not what he did but the person who did it. Compare that to The Social Network. That movie is about Mark Zuckerberg but by not naming it after him there’s a degree less emphasis on Mark himself—it’s giving what he did the attention.
I know it sounds like I’m overthinking this but Luhmann could have had Elvis say anything at the end. It didn’t have to be about fears of legacy. And this is a biopic that clearly cares about its subject. I imagine Luhrmann, with this film, is essentially trying to tell the spirit of Elvis, “See, look, you’re remembered. You did it.”
Even Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, enjoyed the film. She posted to Instagram, saying,
“I have seen Baz Luhrmann’s movie ‘Elvis’ twice now, and let me tell you that it is nothing short of spectacular. Absolutely exquisite. Austin Butler channeled and embodied my father’s heart and soul beautifully. In my humble opinion, his performance is unprecedented and FINALLY done accurately and respectfully. You can feel and witness Baz’s pure love, care, and respect for my father throughout this beautiful film, and it is finally something that myself and my children and their children can be proud of forever [Note from Chris: I’m now crying as I type this]. What moved me to tears as well was watching Riley and Harper, and Finley afterwards, all 3 visibly overwhelmed in the best possible way, and so filled with pride about their grandfather and his legacy in a way that I have no previously experienced. It breaks my heart that my son isn’t here to see it. He would have absolutely loved it as well. I can’t tell you enough how much I love this film and I hope you love it too.”
Elvis as commentary on celebrity
The movie makes sure it emphasizes the relationship between Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker. Parker isn’t just a side character who remains at the fringes like Vernon Presley (Richard Roxburgh). No, he’s the first person we see. He’s the first person we hear. He’s the narrator. He introduces us to the story and he gives the final speech.
Parker tries telling the audience that it was the fans who brought about the demise of Elvis. That the people are at fault for what happened. Because Elvis loved them and wanted their adoration. It’s outrageous because we know Parker’s the one responsible. Parker stole from Elvis. Parker medicated Elvis through Dr. Nick (Tony Nixon). Parker chained Elvis to Vegas and threatened to ruin him financially if Elvis were to leave him. Parker was the conductor of Elvis’s downfall.
What stood out to me about this is that, at the time, it’s not something most people would know, right? To the world, Elvis was Elvis and in charge of his own life. Onlookers would have zero clue what’s going on behind the scenes. And the same is true of us, today, in the here and now. You see a celebrity do their thing. Whether that’s music, acting, sports, business, whatever. And you assume everything is good. Maybe there’s a negative headline or two—relationship drama, unhappiness about something or other. But you almost never consider that they may have people in their lives actively destroying them.
Just look at Britney Spears. In 1998, she had a breakthrough with “…Baby One More Time.” The song was everywhere. The video had immediate pop culture impact. And Spears was on her way to becoming one of the biggest names in the world. No one really knew what was happening behind the scenes. There was a circus of manipulation that eventually led to a public breakdown, a conservatorship, and a decade-long battle to end the conservatorship. The stories that came out shocked the public, with Britney’s father, Jamie, emerging as a villain. Britney herself called for her father’s arrest for conservatorship abuse.
With that in mind, Elvis is essentially a cautionary tale about fame that we can imagine many celebrities dealing with. Every time you hear a headline about the early death of a famous person, there’s almost always something awful like this going on behind the scenes. A combination of manipulators, enablers, obsessives, and leeches.
I don’t think we should be looking at the tragedy of Elvis’s story as simply a thing that happened to him. Rather, we should understand it as something that every celebrity you know is probably dealing with (or dealt with) in some capacity. And that behind every breakdown or fall from grace or early end, there’s probably someone who was there with a flame melting Icarus’s wings.
Elvis and Amadeus
Speaking of melting someone’s wings. I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Elvis and one of the best movies of all time: Amadeus.
Amadeus released in 1984 and was a critical and commercial smash. It won eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. The story is an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s play called Mozart and Salieri. Salieri was a contemporary of Mozart’s and letters from Mozart to his father often talked about Salieri as an obstacle. The Italian composer was entrenched in the Vienna court and had much sway with the gatekeepers and tastemakers. Mozart blamed Salieri for difficulties in making friends, connections, and in-roads in the Vienna opera scene. After Mozart suddenly passed away at 35 years old, rumors began that Salieri may have had something to do with it. Rumors turned into myths. And then Pushkin turned the myth into theater. His play codified the rivalry into a dramatic and terrible thing. The dramatization became popular and retold by other artists through the years.
The 1984 version goes like this. It starts with an older Salieri committed to an insane asylum. There, he confesses to a priest how he was the one responsible for Mozart’s passing. That leads into a flashback. We meet a younger Salieri and get to know his life just before he meets Mozart. Then the movie mostly becomes about Mozart. Of course, Salieri still plays a crucial role in events and narrates the whole thing. But we see the struggles and success of Mozart. And ultimately what Salieri does to destabilize Mozart. His tactics and tricks drive Mozart into a frenzy of work that eventually leads to sickness, financial ruin, and mortal exhaustion. We then cut back to older Salieri and the priest. Salieri gives a final speech to the horrified priest and that’s that.
Elvis uses almost the same exact structure. We start with Colonel Parker in the future. He’s committed to a hospital rather than an insane asylum but similar idea. We then flashback to the time in Parker’s life just before he meets Elvis. Then a lot of the movie becomes about Elvis. Parker is still there and plays a crucial role in events and narrates the whole thing. Ultimately, Parker destabilizes Elvis. His tactics and tricks drive EP into a frenzy of work that eventually leads to sickness, financial ruin, and mortal exhaustion. The film then cuts back to the older Colonel Parker. He gives a final speech and that’s that.
Now, I want you to know, I wrote all of the above then decided I should Google “Baz Luhrmann Amadeus.” Sure enough, it turns out that Baz Luhrmann has mentioned this a couple times. In one interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro he said “Doing a biopic on Elvis didn’t interest me. I wanted to treat it like Shakespeare, who takes a historical figure and makes it something else. Amadeus by Milos Forman had a huge influence on me.”
In another interview with Deborah Knight on her podcast, he said “I was such a fan of Amadeus, you know? And Amadeus is not really about Mozart. It’s actually the story of Salieri. Now, who knows who he is? Well, who knows who Colonel Tom Parker is?”
So. There you have it. Elvis is definitely Baz Luhrmann’s Amadeus. And is probably another reason the title is Elvis, as it rhymes with Amadeus. And both are the first names of the subjects. Bad was definitely trying to call attention to Amadeus as an influence. I think that’s such an amazing detail.
Elvis and King Kong
Alright, so I already established Baz Luhrmnan had Amadeus in mind when putting together Elvis. Well, there’s one more classic movie being reference that’s worth a shout out. And, yes, that’s King Kong. I know, I know. That might seem crazy. Again. But hear me out.
The story of King Kong should be familiar but a quick recap. A filmmaker hears rumor of this giant monster and tricks a studio into letting him go film at Skull Island. The island natives end up kidnapping the film’s lead actress then offer her as a sacrifice to King Kong. You know, the giant 50-foot tall gorilla. Eventually, rescuers find the actress, Ann, and capture Kong and bring him back to New York City where the filmmaker wants to make him a theatrical attraction. On opening night, Kong breaks loose and freaks out and destroys cars and property. Eventually, he captures Ann, climbs to the top of the Empire State Building, and fights a bunch of planes. Technology bests size and Kong falls all the way from the top of the building and crashes to the street below.
The final moments show the filmmaker, Carl Denham, step up to Kong’s body. A police officer says, “Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.” Denham gives a look then says, “Aw no. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” (1933 version here).
At the end of Elvis, after Elvis’s passing, Parker gives his final narration. He says, “What killed my boy? Them doctors say it was his heart. Others, the pills. Some say it was me. No. I’ll tell you what killed him…it was…love. His love for you.”
It’s the exact same set-up and punchline. Someone says “X-thing got him.” And then someone else says, “No, it wasn’t X. It was Y.” In both cases, X is the practical thing. Airplanes. A bad heart. Pills. And in both cases, Y is the more romantic thing. Beauty. Love.
But why? Why would Luhrmann want to make a connection between Elvis and King Kong? I’ll tell you. Because Elvis’s nickname was the King of Rock and Roll. And the same way Kong was taken out of his home and put on stage to be an attraction, so too was Elvis. And in both cases, their infatuations put them in precarious positions. For Kong, it was Ann’s beauty. For Elvis, it was the adulation of the crowd. The love from the audience. The beauty of everyone cheering for him and the glow in the aftermath of a fantastic show.
King Kong is a tragedy. Especially the 2005 version by Peter Jackson. Jackson turned Kong from a slightly humanized creature into a beautiful soul. 2005 Kong’s intelligence and compassion is super endearing. 1933 Ann was always terrified of 1933 Kong. But 2005 Ann sees how amazing 2005 Kong is. There’s a genuine bond. That makes Kong’s eventual climb and fall all the more devastating.
Unfortunately, there’s no interview where Luhrmann explains his love of King Kong. But I 1000% guarantee you he made that King of Rock and Roll and King Kong connection in his head and riffed on the final line to make a reference to the tragedy of both stories.
Did Colonel Parker really have a heart attack or hurt his back?
No. It was just him manipulating Elvis. If you’ve ever watched Better Call Saul, Parker is just as tricky as Saul Goodman. The scene starts with Parker needing multiple people to help him stand and those arm canes to keep himself upright. He looks weak and sad. But as soon as he’s at the stage with Elvis and has Elvis bought into the idea of the Vegas residency, he’s fine. He’s walking on his own. He’s moving normally. There’s no back issue. No heart issue. Just, as Parker would call it, a snow job.
Why was he putting on such a show? Because it was known Elvis was going to fire Parker and flying to Vegas to do specifically that. So Parker had time to put together a plan to save himself from Elvis’s wrath. And the plan worked.
Who was Colonel Tom Parker?
The move only gives quick moments that explain this. But Thomas Parker was actually Andrea Cornelis van Kujik. He grew up in the Netherlands and worked at carnivals there. When he was twenty years old, he snuck into America and once again fell into the carnival scene. Weirdly, the movie makes it seem like Parker avoided military service but in real life Parker served in the U.S. military. Pretty bold move for someone who is in the country illegally to serve in the military. But it worked.
Knowing this background explains two things. First, it explains why Parker was so eager to work with authorities to stop young Elvis from shaking his hips. The more government scrutiny that Elvis received, the more likely someone would realize Parker was an illegal immigrant and deport him to the Netherlands. A real manager probably would have leaned into the controversy a bit more and cultivated Elvis’s bad boy image and found ways around getting arrested. Parker, though, was overeager to save himself at the expense of Elvis. The same thing happened in Vegas. Parker had humongous gambling debts and solved the issue by giving bad advice to Elvis.
Second, it explains why Parker wouldn’t let Elvis do an international tour. As Elvis’s manager, Parker would be expected to travel wherever Elvis went. But Parker wasn’t a citizen of anywhere. He had no passport. If he tried to leave the country, he might get deported. If he did leave and tried to come back ino, he might get deported. To save himself the embarrassment and any fallout from the revelation, he actively manipulated Elvis into avoiding international tours.
Why is there modern music in Elvis?
There are a few moments in the movie when 21st century music suddenly plays. Notable is the Beale Street scene. We watch Elvis leave Graceland to hit up Beale Street’s Club Handy. It’s a Jazz club frequented by famous and up-and-coming Black artists. B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola Quartey). Little Richard (Alton Mason). While Elvis parks his car and is swarmed on the streets by people who recognize him, it’s not 1950s music playing. It’s a modern rap song (the name of which I can’t find anywhere, though it’s not the Doja Cat song). Bass heavy. A complete juxtaposition to the time.
There’s not a great explanation for it aside from “Luhrmann used modern music in The Great Gatsby and people liked it. So it just seems like something he’s doing here, too.” Which is fine. The moments when we get modern artists, like Doja Cat or Kacy Musgraves, sound cool. In that Beale Street scene, Elvis is feeling a certain way and the hip hop energy works with the rebellious vibe.
I don’t mind the choice. It can be a little jarring at first, but I kind of enjoy the way in which it puts our present in a bit of conversation with the past. You get a sense of legacy. Elvis was so influenced by Black music. A topic which is often debated. The positive argument is that his popularizing of the sound helped introduce it to White audience who then became more receptive to Black artists making the same music. The negative argument is this White guy stole the sound of Black artists and became incredibly popular because America was/is racist. But if you land somewhere in the middle, having a modern hip hop song in that Beale Street scene does start to chain together this idea that what was happening on Beale Street back in the 50s is what led to much of the music we have today.
Did Elvis actually like Captain Marvel Jr.
Oh yeah. Take one look at the character and you’re just like, “Oh. Yup. Elvis.” Specifically, it’s the haircut, that pompadour style, and the fact Captain Marvel Jr. wore only a half cape. A half cape became part of Elvis’s later-in-life look and most iconic outfit. Apparently there’s a box of Captain Marvel Jr. comics in the attic at Graceland.
Did Austin Butler sing in Elvis
Yeah, according to Baz Luhrmann, Butler sang everything as young Elvis. Mid-life Elvis had some spliced footage. That’s most apparent at the very end when hearing him sing “Unchained Melody.” That’s 100% real Elvis. But those early performances of “Hound Dog” and “That’s All Right”? That TV special? All Austin Butler. He spent a full year with a vocal coach to get Elvis’s voice down pat. And, even now, he says he finds himself sometimes slipping into the voice.
Have more questions?
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