A disappointing movie. No one calls the King a sausage. Worse, he doesn’t even come within sniffing distance of a hamburger. Actually, I say disappointing. This is pretty much exactly what I’d expect from a Baz Luhrmann Elvis Presley movie. He missed his calling to make the Liberace life story. Elvis is nothing if not colourful – gaudy even – excitable – frenetic, even – and stacked to the rafters with montage moments (although, the line between outright narrative scenes and montages in Luhrmann movies is a precariously thin one). It’s also quickly quite exhausting, for a number of structural reasons, chief among which is the centre framing of Tom Hanks’ brother.
I say brother; it’s quite possible both are on screen here, since Hanks’ coof/Guantanamo run-in occurred about six weeks into filming. Hanks’ cinematic desecrations since he received an Oscar nomination for essaying Fred Rogers as a gimlet-eyed psychopath have included spreading the truth to everyone (News of the World), promoting transhumanism (Finch) and appearing as a kindly paternal type manufacturing fake children for his own dubious purposes (Pinocchio). Elvis, about a nefarious manipulator out only for himself, feeding off the youth, seems more aligned to the real Tom, give or take the adrenochrome addiction and soul scalping.
The Colonel Tom Parker factor highlights the immediate problem with Luhrmann’s take. I liked Strictly Ballroom, and despite myself The Great Gatsby. I never took to Moulin Rouge! though, at least partly because I had no investment in the central romance (this was obviously long before I knew Nicole Kidman was actually Nick). Australia might have been so bad it was good, had it not just been bad. Romeo + Juliet was… alright. Baz’s coke-fuelled, glitterball style of filmmaking potentially suits the moribund biopic genre, but it can’t disguise that you need a way “in” to the subject. He likely believed he had that with the Colonel Tom Parker angle, but the Toms (all three) end up sinking Elvis from all sides.
Not only is there not enough attention to Presley the man (or man-boy), but Tom is also little more than a ghoulish caricature. And worst of all, unforgivably even, a ghoulish caricature who’s no fun to watch. The trick vital to making this work would have been ensuring Parker, if not a villain you love to hate, was at least one who is fascinating. Frere Hanks, all eccentric accent and prosthetics that make Dan Aykroyd’s in Nothing but Trouble look restrained – now, Aykroyd might have been a good choice – is a tiresomely overbearing bust. Further, the unreliable narrator element is wafer thin, since it’s only the voiceover that’s making believe, rather than what we see (“the facts”).
And then there’s Austin Butler. The biggest problem is a shallow but essential one: Elvis looked like someone. Austin looks like no one. Except maybe Justin Bieber. His face has no character. The vocal approximation is very good, but he brings no charisma or personality to the part, unless you consider pouting like Derek Zoolander personality. Butler’s thirty-ish, but he looks five years younger, and he has no facility for wearing the span of years covered (twenty-plus) on his face (compare to, say Pacino in The Godfather at 32, Travolta in Blow Out at 28, or Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s Elvis TV movie at 28, and there’s a gaping chasm there).
Ironically, in the scheme of the picture, Butler’s probably more effective as the later period Elvis (from around the point of his Christmas special), but that may be as much down to there being slightly more substance to the material and costuming (certainly, once he sports mutton chops, they do a significant amount of heavy lifting). During the early stages, though, Butler looks like he’s auditioning for an ’80s new romantic band.
Luhrmann inevitably gives everything an uncommon sparkle and sheen, so young Elvis’ initiation into black music and culture (complete with transformative experience at a Pentecostal church) is lent a beatific, fairy-tale quality (he’ll flashback to it several times much later). During his last, bloated moments – like everything else here, incredibly truncated – Butler bears a curious resemblance to Jon Lovitz (who would, obviously, have made a great Elvis. Or at very least, a great Elvis impersonator).
Luhrmann rehearses all the key notes, of Elvis as a public menace, of his going into the army rather than jail, of his moribund ’60s period, of his family of hangers-on (his gang/ Memphis Mafia gets far less exposure than in the Carpenter movie, however). There’s emphasis on strong alcoholic and needy mom (Helen Thomson) – with a whiff of the incestuous – and weak pop (Richard Roxborough, consigned to go down in history as the least impressive Dracula ever). David Wenham (also seen in Van Helsing) pops up, as does Kodi Smit-McPhee (apparently wearing his Power of the Dog costume). Luke Bracey (the execrable Point Break remake) and Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things) are Memphis Mafia and music producer respectively.
Most notable about Olivia DeJonge’s Priscilla is that Elvis looks more feminine (although, the real deal has done her utmost to curtail her looks with some rigorous plastic surgeries). On the subject of whom, a little less jailbait conversation is largely absent, since we’re talking Elvis as a slightly less senior Humbert Humbert here (Jerry Lee Lewis professed at least he was married).
Occasional moments are inspired, inevitably. Everything about Elvis’ initial impact on audiences – female audiences – is highly amusing, with every hip wiggle inducing a maximum reaction shot of screaming, swooning, paralytically enraptured fans (“The girls wanna see you wiggle“). It’s so OTT, Baz is firmly in Austin Powers territory. Mostly, though, the title character is as unreadable as Butler’s bland features. Luhrmann uses signposts to advance the narrative, of hit songs, of historic events (assassinations, generally), of drug uses. He likes his subjective camera, but mostly he just plain likes the editing suite. More is more. Baz has always displayed flair with blending the contemporary and period in his soundtracks to effusive effect, I’ll give him that much, but he can’t hide the emptiness this time.
Are there any allusions to the Elvis under the hood? What to make of Luhrmann starting off with the Star Trek Experience 1997? This is all a show, an illusion? It’s repeated throughout: “I’m not a trickster” professes Elvis. “All showmen are snowmen” responds Parker. “I’m so tired of playing Elvis Presley” waxes the King. “Who are you, Elvis?” he is asked soon after. On stage, beleaguered and bewildered, he calls Parker “Colonel Sanders”, and suggests “But I hear rumours the colonel is an alien”.
But Baz is sticking to the script. What there is of it. Miles Mathis has his own take, naturally. Mathis banalises conspiracy theory, reduces everything to an algorithm. Which is understandable, because if he’s right, and some of what he says undoubtedly is, everything becomes slightly tedious. Miles is there to make you think everything is, ever so slightly, conformist under the hood; it’s Miles easier that way. I also believe the inherent tedium is part of the package, as it’s intended to add the lustre of the academic to his work (after all, who reads academic papers who doesn’t have to?) The gist of his thesis is that Elvis was a planned and rehearsed product of the system, although Mathis takes a great deal of prescribed waffle to get to that point. If you’ve reached the conclusion, as the more erudite and concise Dave McGowan did, that the ’60s scene was largely engineered, this will come as no surprise; it’s all stepping stones to the ultimate goal.
Miles notes that Elvis was a twin, his brother (Jesse Garon, as opposed to Elvis Aaron – that’s Garon and Aaron) allegedly dying in child birth. We thus have a Paul/Faul scenario (“the nice thing about twins is that they can be in two places at once. And if you lose one, you always have a spare”). He notes how unremarkable Elvis is said to have been musically in his early days, despite the mentoring/grooming. BB King was a CIA asset. Memphis Mafia’s Abe Fortas would go on to become Supreme Court Justice (and also CIA). Inevitably, Miles gets into the Phoenicians within about two paragraphs, which is, whatever the actual provenance may be, yes, slightly tedious. Sam Phillips, of Sun Records “looks very Dutch to me”. What is Miles? Austin Powers’ dad? Mathis’ key point is one in which we’re all well-versed, which is part of the problem; very few of his deductions are revelatory, if one starts from a certain position. Which goes back to algorithms. And whether what he’s saying is wrong or right, or somewhere in between, it’s the starting position that counts because you have plausibility on your side:
As they did later with Dylan and the Beatles, the CIA was promoting Elvis as part of a long-planned sexual revolution. This decades-long revolution would break up the family, split the sexes, splinter the religions, and destabilize culture as a whole, creating huge new markets and allowing for new forms of control. It was what we now call the New World Order, but they have been installing it for the past two centuries, and maybe longer.
Of course, if we view society as pre-1700 (ruled) and post-1700 (also ruled, but “and then some”), a different level of galvanisation and process comes in. It’s more the form the NWO order takes than it being strategically installed.
Per Mathis, Parker was an intelligence handler (not an agent). Elvis and “Aron” (Garon) are distinguished by the latter having a big chin. He’s the one who married Priscilla and got fat, while Elvis remained trim and fairly abstinent (Miles earmarks the photos to prove it). So far so reasonable, but his assessment of Elvis’ (or Elvis’ handlers’) ’60s priorities is patchy to say the least. In the absence of hit singles, Elvis was making movies of strictly limited appeal, “But their primary goal was not making money. It was propaganda, and movies were a far better vehicle for propaganda than records”. Miles evidences this with two movies he made in the ’50s, however, right near the start of his career. He’s talking hogwash, basically. You have to be in vogue to be an effective propaganda tool, and Elvis was passé at the point he was glutting cinemas with himself.
Miles’ standard recourse is that famous figures don’t die; they go to cosseted retirement, a bit like The Avengers finale Bizarre but with a higher budget. It’s part of his algorithm. The “Elvis project” was ended “Because it was no longer going in the direction they wanted. Elvis had turned himself into a straight performer, and he wasn’t willing to do the propaganda anymore”. Again, Miles is somewhat motivationally vague: “Apparently Intelligence wasn’t willing to keep shovelling that money into the project. With the twins legally dead, they could make money from the project without spending so much. The death would act as publicity, boosting the earnings, and costs would be at the same time cut drastically”. One could make all sorts of counterarguments for the vialbilty of the project, obviously.
What I did find potentially illuminating about Miles’ scenario, vis-à-vis Elvis, is his suggestion that, to culminate the deal “they brought Aron out of semi-retirement and told Elvis to make himself scarce. By then, Aron was fat and sick, though probably not from drugs… Fat Elvis may even have been a third person”. In the movie, we’re suddenly introduced to fat Elvis – Butler with a few facial appliances: the Lovitz look – with very little time left on the clock, almost as if a switcheroo has been pulled. This could be put down to Luhrmann failing to make any of his shifts seem very organic, but the change is highly visible nevertheless. On the death thing generally, Elvis allegedly died at 42, a number Kubrick was partial to in his films (not to mention Douglas Adams). Miles assumes Elvis is/was still alive. You’ll see some suggesting he’s going to perform when the White Hats throw their victory gala. If he’s an 87-year-old in fine fettle and on the side of the angels, maybe.
A contrasting take comes from MKUltra victim Brice Taylor. As with Miles – whom I’d class as a disinfo agent, so his epistles are laced with truths – you have to buy Brice’s bona fides in the first place. And you also have to assume she was privy to info she may have assumed (ie there’s nothing in her account that suggests there weren’t two Elvises; she just didn’t have that access, or to his death bed/toilet). In her telling “The Mob and others had hold of Elvis Presley… I was instructed to have sex with him and tell him things that they wanted him to know or say in a show or a song, or to do. If he didn’t do as they said, they threatened or tortured him or “his ole lady,” as he called her”. Per her understanding, Elvis legitimately died/was made deceased: “I don’t know what they did to him but they used him up and then felt afraid he would “crack” and spill what he knew so they kept him drugged until they couldn’t safely use him anymore and then he “died.” Of course it wasn’t an accident or a natural death, he had a lot of help from his controllers”.
Taylor has it that phrases in the King’s stage introductions, or in the new lyrics themselves initially, were used to control both programmed individuals specifically and the subconscious minds of the audience generally. She attests to his deteriorated state, from drink, drugs, bulimia, and “From my experience I believe Elvis was a puppet, a pawn, and in the end, totally directed and, finally, used up by these men in control of him… They waited for him to become seriously dysfunctional from the increasing amount of drugs prescribed by his doctors. Then they ‘stopped his ticker for him so he didn’t have to suffer no more’”.
So don’t lay it all on Colonel Tom, would be the message, whether you’re inclined towards Miles or Brice. Tom Hanks, or his brother, can’t always be the villain, however appropriate it may seem. I’m unsure where Elviscurrently stands in the Best Picture tables, but if Top Gun: Maverick is getting semi-serious attention, anything’s possible. Most likely are a raft of technical nominations though. And, to be sure, technically, it’s dazzling. There’s nothing underneath that razzle though. It’s a Baz Luhrmann film through and through.
Addendum 09/11/22: Loathe as I am to credit Miles, it seems he is right about the King (of course, as a disinformation agent, some of Mathis’ info is bound to be correct). That is, the bit about him faking his death. This was, in contrast to the Marilyn case, with the aid of the White Hats. It seems he lived thirty years past his official demise and is now occupying a clone body (under the intention of seeing the bigger-picture truth coming out). Elvis is not Pastor Bob.