I was very fortunate to begin my radio career in 1954, right at the very beginning of what would become the rock and roll era. It was a career that would span more than twenty years and has left me with a million great memories of those radio days. It was a no brainer to go see the new Elvis movie and this past Friday we did and saw an incredible, non sugar coated, bare to the bone film about the “King” and Col. Tom Parker with Austin Butler and Tom Hanks starring. So here is my take on this near three hour experience that is totally engrossing from the first frame to the very last (and have the Kleenex ready).
To begin with Baz Luhrmann’s treatment holds back very little and is pretty much told from the perspective of Col. Tom Parker and the opening sets the tone. Here we see Parker who was near death, awakened in a dark hospital room to the stories of being a cheat, a liar, a crook, a manipulator. Now out of this near death experience Parker needs to set things right and immediately the glitz of Las Vegas comes into play as this nightmarish opening leads us into the story.
We see the pre teen Elvis and a friend sneaking into a black revival meeting and he is taken with the music, the movements, the shouting and singing. It is a scene that will replay in his growing up years and later life as he gets to know and idolize people like Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Sharp, Little Richard and others and we see that interaction take place and begin to shape the Elvis that would explode on the world. Then we see Parker, extremely well played by Tom Hanks, in his carnival barker days and then managing country star Hank Snow and the Louisiana Hayride bunch. At this point someone mentions about this kid Elvis Presley and how great he sounds and needs to be part of the Hayride. Parker says, “great but nobody’s gonna want a black singer on this show.” Then he gets told he is white and bam! things quickly change. Parker meets with Presley adds him to the show, audiences go wild, Hank Snow is not happy about it all and before long Elvis is the star of the Hayride. It is at this point that Parker smells big money ahead and talking to Elvis says, “Mr. Presley, are you ready to fly?” To which Elvis says yes and that begins the meteoric rise and eventual hard fall of this extremely talented young man who had so much to give the world.
We get to see the conflicts that Elvis has with his mother and father and how his mother’s death affects him (the scene of Elvis clutching her clothes in the closet will bring tears). We see his disaster opening in 1956 at the International in Las Vegas when when the city was just not ready for him yet. We see Parker begin to manipulate and stage certain things at Elvis’s live shows to create riots and chaos. Because there is so much to tell, Luhrmann glosses over a lot of incidents and happenings throughout the film, but gives you just enough with certain scenes to show just how Parker had this hold on Presley. He also makes sure that we see the relationship he has with Priscilla and how that moves along. There is the 1968 Comeback Special that was supposed to be a holiday special complete with elves, Santa Claus, Christmas songs, etc. and NBC was all for it. But in one of the rare times Elvis went against Parker’s orders, he decides to go back to his roots and does the special we have all become familiar with and Parker is scrambling to make it right and can’t. The execs at NBC are ready to sue, until they see the ratings the next day that are through the roof.
Racing through clips of concerts the next big area of Presley’s later life is when Parker goes back to the new management of the International to bring Elvis in for one show and of course now it is a smash and Parker knows he can get Elvis more, so he works a dirty deal with the management, who are also Mafia controlled, to have Elvis return to the International for several years in the 70’s. this is where we really see Parker at his worst and Elvis’ circle trying to tell him of Parker’s dirty deeds and why he has been held back, but Elvis doesn’t want to hear it.
There is more that takes place in this last segment of the film but by the time we get to the ending, it is time for the Kleenex and tears. As Elvis lies on the floor passed out, his people want a real doctor and Parker says, looking down at the fallen Elvis “The only damn thing that matters is that he gets on that stage tonight.” He nods and walks away and then you see the needles and drugs being applied. It closes with that near final appearance with Austin Butler as a pudgy, bloated Elvis intermixed with actual films of Elvis doing that concert as the film fades to black.
In short, a brilliant film that could have easily been another hour or two longer because there was so much to tell that was glossed over. Still, it is expansive, colorful, glitzy and bare boned. Austin Butler as Elvis is, to me, the best Elvis yet as he captured the total aura, essence, emotional and mental makeup of the man perfectly and also proved to be a damn good singer on his own. He is very worthy of a Best Actor Oscar nod. Tom Hanks as Parker was spot on in look, delivery and being the self destructive SOB he was to Elvis and also is Oscar worthy. The rest of the cast, big role or small, was excellent and then of course the music that wraps this whole package in a big bow. It is a “must see” film for everyone to experience so be sure you make your plans to do so.
One final note: There are two camps regarding Col. Parker those who say he was not responsible for Elvis dying and those who do blame Parker for his death. As for me being in radio during all that time and knowing some of the stories and the players, yes, I am in the camp that believes if it wasn’t for Parker and his greedy, manipulative ways, Elvis might still be with us today. But after you see this film make up your own mind.
Art Koch, National Features & DVD Editor, NightMoves Magazine and AAN