I am not the biggest fan of the King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. Yet, I was excited to see Elvis. We celebrate Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) because he used his platform to make important statements at the right moments in history. This seems to take precedent over the fact that he came from a Gospel background, and many of his most popular songs are tinged with prayer. As a Christian practitioner, I have found a deepening of my Faith through Charismatic worship. Today’s film presents Elvis’ early life (Chaydon Jay) as having learned a great deal from similar revivals taking place in the poor neighborhood in which he lived. While watching this, I could not help but be reminded of some of the things I regularly see at the Charismatic worship services I attend. Bear this fact in mind as you read on, particularly in light of recent events.
Elvis is told through the eyes of the villain, and that bad guy is the self-proclaimed Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). It is 1997, and Elvis’ former manager is being admitted to the hospital on the verge of death. As popular culture will tell you, these are the times in which people take stock of their lives. It is not so much that Colonel Parker discovered Elvis, but that he recognized an opportunity. In Elvis was a poor kid, raised in an African American community by his mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson), while his father, Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), served a jail sentence. Colonel Parker is a traveling circus promoter, which also featured musical acts. When one of his performers plays some of Elvis’ music on the radio, and mentions that the man himself will soon be giving a concert nearby, Colonel Parker resolves to go see the performance. It is the reaction of the crowd that most gets his attention, and he quickly moves in on the young performer. In order to appease his parents, Colonel Parker makes Vernon, officially speaking, Elvis’ manager. And soon it is on the road, an idea that frightens Gladys because of the things that her son might get into without her supervision. The success also comes quickly, and it leads to the Presleys buying the famous Graceland Estate outside of Memphis, Tennessee. It is with this early fame and success that we see the beginning of the problems for Elvis. One of the first is the ire of racist Senator Jim Eastland (Nicholas Bell) of Mississippi. Because much of Elvis’ sound is inspired by the African American culture around which he grew up, not to mention his on-stage gyrations, Senator Eastland threatens to have Elvis arrested if the rock n’ roller does not change. The politician puts the responsibility for these changes on Colonel Parker’s plate, using the fake officer’s made-up past as leverage. Taking some advice from his friend, the famous Blues player B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Elvis stays true to his roots, which leads to a great deal of trouble. The solution Colonel Parker comes up with is for Elvis to serve a period of service in the army. While in the armed forces, he meets his future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). With his time in the military over, and a new wife to help his image, Elvis is ready to follow the next phase of his career, one promised him by Colonel Parker when he returns to the United States: being a movie star. Elvis wants to be a serious actor, but Colonel Parker cannot get away from making “his boy” pander to the patrons that bring in extra money. This leads to a series of trivial films that appear even more so in the midst of the increasing societal upheaval of the 1960s. A major revelation comes when Elvis finds out that he is nearly out of money, which Colonel Parker explains away as the cost of business, in addition to Elvis’ spending. Seeking to revitalize his career, Elvis seeks out producers Jerry Schilling (Luke Bracey) and Steve Binder (Darce Montgomery). Though it appears that Elvis is on the wrong side of his career, Jerry and Steve see the lingering potential and agree to a television appearance. Colonel Parker expects a holiday special, but when the show starts it is Elvis doing all his familiar songs, much to the angst of the company sponsors there to hear Christmas carols. What wins everyone over is Elvis singing a protest song in the wake of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Now Jerry in particular wants to take Elvis on an international tour, and Elvis is about to part ways with Colonel Parker. Before this can happen, though, Colonel Parker invites Elvis to the new International Hotel in Las Vegas. When Elvis sees the stage being built, Colonel Parker convinces the King of Rock n’ Roll to give a show. So successful is it that Elvis agrees to do more shows, and Colonel Parker locks him into a new contract that is more beneficial to him than the performer. Each time Elvis tries to get away, the huckster circus man finds a way to dig the hooks back in, including sending a bill for over $8 million when Elvis attempts to fire Colonel Parker. To cope with it all, Elvis turns to that which will eventually kill him, prescription drugs. Because of this addiction, Priscilla ends up leaving him. Meanwhile, Colonel Parker keeps driving Elvis into the ground with shows, all the while keeping the most popular singer alive from the dreamed of international tour, before his death in 1977. In a pre-credit text, we are told that not long after Elvis’ passing away, the truth of Colonel Parker’s shady dealings was exposed in court.
My introduction to this review of Elvis mentioned what was not spoken of in the description of the plot. Elvis grew up a Christian. Of course, there were aspects of his life that were quite un-Christian. His addiction to prescription pills is not the kind of behavior any follower of Christ would recommend, nor would be the unfaithfulness to his wife. Still, I was particularly thrilled when, before the first performance that Colonel Parker witnesses, Elvis and his family gather around each other to sing “I’ll Fly Away.” It is an old timey Gospel tune, and a favorite of mine. You can hear it sung more fully in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Yet, that is not the only hymn you hear in Elvis, and the film does a fair job of discussing some of the other related songs that the so-called King of Rock n’ Roll made famous, like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Still, these are surface observations. There are some deeper truths in the film that speak to character and Faith. What I find interesting is how the story is told from the perspective of the villain, even though Colonel Parker claims innocence. In deed and fact, he is truly a Judas Iscariot. Colonel Parker attempts to absolve himself of any blame from Elvis’ untimely demise, even though one of the first interactions you see between the two is the manager ordering drugs to be pumped into the employee so the show could go on. In a few words, Colonel Parker says what only a truly twisted person could utter: that it was Elvis’ love for his fans that brought about the fall of the king. To be fair, there are such things as disordered loves, yet I would counter that such things are no love at all. Nor would I call Elvis’ affections for his supporters “disordered.” True love is that which comes from God, and what we give Him in return. Elvis putting on a concert under the bright lights is an apt metaphor for this situation. When you are on a stage, the brightness of the setting blots out any real view of those gathered to see you. In other words, you cannot fully lay eyes on those giving you the plaudits, and trying to do so for too long can blind you. It works better if you accept it on faith. Further, he is constantly in search of the kind of unconditional love that God offers us. He finds it for a time in Gladys, and after her death Colonel Parker attempts to take on that mantle. Each take advantage of Elvis in their own way, but it is the seeking on his part that I merit. He was not perfect by any means, but his core seemed to always be at least somewhat Christian in nature.
One thing I have not talked so far is how Elvis is shot. It is the same writer and director who did The Great Gatsby (2013). I love the book, but I did not appreciate the chaotic style in which the film adaptation was made. You have the same thing with Elvis, though it seems to fit a little better with this story. The film is rated PG-13, so it rides the line in certain places as to what is appropriate to see on the big screen. Still, it is pretty tame. I cannot say I was moved in any particular way, though I will give Austin Butler credit for becoming Elvis. Tom Hanks’ job of giving you a creepy Colonel Parker, always peering from the shadows, is good, too. If that is worth the price of admission for you, then go ahead.