This weekend, many people will be going to the theater to see Elvis, excited to take in a film about Elvis Presley. But they may be surprised to learn that the voiceover is provided not by Presley but, rather, Colonel Tom Parker, his longtime manager who (according to Parker, anyway) made Presley the titanic cultural force he became. The Parker we meet at the start of Elvis — dying, bitter, hungry to settle scores, determined to get us on his side — narrates Presley’s story, showing us the musician’s rise and fall through his eyes. You’re seeing an Elvis movie, but not really — it’s more about how the Colonel viewed the King.
That’s a gutsy way to structure a biopic, but not entirely novel coming from Baz Luhrmann, the filmmaker of Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, who enjoys inserting a little irreverence into sacred texts, whether they come from William Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald. This technique of having a secondary character take the lead is hardly new — Eve doesn’t narrate All About Eve — but there’s something especially cutting in Luhrmann’s choice to have Parker be our tour guide. In a way, all biopics — and especially musical biopics — aren’t necessarily about their main character. Instead, they’re about our fascination with being up close and personal with greatness. Elvis isn’t about Elvis. It’s really about us.
The film opens long after Presley’s death. We’re in Vegas in the mid-1990s as Parker (Tom Hanks, buried under makeup) reminisces about the King — he’s a doddering, ill old fool telling tales about a long gone superstar. Soon, Elvis flashes back to Presley’s early days, showing us how Parker and Presley (Austin Butler) first got together and how the Colonel instantly realized the kid could be huge. Parker was little more than a two-bit hustler before Presley came into his life, but with his shameless swagger and bulldozer demeanor, this aspiring manager convinced a once-in-a-generation talent that he alone knew how to make him rich. Everything that follows — the predictable highs and lows endemic to most musical biopics — is commented on by Parker in voiceover, a running commentary track about the brilliance and failings of a Southern white kid who brought sexual energy and teenage rebellion to buttoned-down postwar America.
His jowls puffed up to comic proportions — and his accent a weird tenor that could charitably be described as “European, kinda?” — Hanks plays Parker as a scoundrel and a conman, someone we know almost immediately not to trust. The more he pleads his case, casting Presley as an ungrateful punk who didn’t appreciate everything Parker did for him, the more we recognize that Parker, with death looming, is worried about how he’ll come across once he’s gone. Elvis could be read as his bid for legacy-brandishing, and Hanks cannily wields his inherent likability to play with our sympathies, tempting us to almost feel sorry for this manipulative son of a bitch.
But we shouldn’t feel too proud of our disdain for Parker, though, because I think there’s something thornier going on simultaneously. The way that Luhrmann sometimes positions the camera — having the audience see Presley from the same vantage point as Parker, off in the distance, just out of reach — seems to speak to a universal condition, that sense that greatness is over there, not connected to us. Maybe just maybe, we’re all more like Parker than we’d care to admit.
As portrayed by Butler, Presley is beautiful, a dynamo, an impossibly shiny thing, but you never feel like you really know him. Partly, that’s the fault of the screenplay, which jumps from highlight to highlight — or, depending on the situation, lowlight to lowlight — with such speed that you feel like Luhrmann is fast-forwarding through the King’s biography to get to the parts he’s most interested in. But it’s also built into the movie’s framing device, Presley’s experience filtered and distorted through that of the Colonel’s. As a result, Elvis underlines the odd relationship we sometimes have with celebrities, living vicariously through them and therefore thinking we can relate to them in some meaningful way. Like Parker, we look at their lives and turn it around and make it about us.
The best example of this filtered framing device was in Amadeus, the 1984 Oscar-winning film adapted from the Tony-winning play. As with Elvis, Amadeus gets its title from its most revered character, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), but the actual central figure is Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a contemporary composer of Mozart’s who grasps that this young upstart is destined for the pantheon. It is both Salieri’s blessing and curse that he can appreciate Mozart’s superhuman talent, knowing full well that no one will remember his own meager work once he’s gone. Especially in the film, we walk through the scenes in Salieri’s shoes, with Abraham slyly recruiting us to be similarly angry at this rising genius, essentially drafting the viewer into being a co-conspirator in his plan to squash Mozart.
Amadeus is more venomous than Elvis, showing how one petty, self-pitying man gets his cosmic comeuppance by the arrival of one of the true greats, but what links them — and so many artist biopics — is their recognition that there’s something profoundly alien about true genius, a natural disconnect between those touched by the gods and the rest of us just muddling through life. Consequently, these films always leave us a bit on the sidelines, where mediocrities are doomed to reside.
Except you and I don’t want to think of ourselves as mediocrities — we’re special, too, damn it! — and so you see in both films their main characters fighting to assert their importance. Parker constantly tries to control Presley, insisting that he knows better about business, only to have the King finally break free of this scheming tyrant. And yet, the voiceover gives Parker one last chance to have the upper hand on his former protégé, committed to getting in the last word before he dies. Similarly, Salieri is a wizened old man in Amadeus, lamenting how God cursed him by dropping Mozart into his orbit. These men aren’t great, but they try to elevate themselves by their proximity to brilliance. They aren’t great, but they rubbed elbows with greatness, which to them might be close enough.
Many music biopics operate in that same vein. They try to brush up against genius, offering their imperfect take on it. Rami Malek conjures up Freddie Mercury, Jennifer Hudson approximates Aretha Franklin, Jamie Foxx does a Ray Charles impression. It’s our measly attempt to imagine what it’s like to be great — and if we get close enough to the real thing, maybe it’ll be convincing.
I find Luhrmann’s style exhilarating but also exhausting, and at 159 minutes, Elvis ends up being more of the latter than the former. But what’s most intriguing about the film — just as it was in his last movie, The Great Gatsby, also told from the vantage point of a secondary character — is its acknowledgement of our uneasy beta position in relationship to the stars we equally love and loathe. We’re fascinated by them, but we also resent them, wondering what makes them so great. Deep down, Colonel Tom Parker, a man who invented a new life for himself to escape his inglorious past, knew he wasn’t talented like Presley, but if he could steer the kid’s career course, then perhaps he could be immortal, too.
But that’s not how artistic immortality works — ultimately, we’re stuck being our measly selves. In Elvis, the pathetic Parker prepares to shuffle off this mortal coil still convinced that Elvis Presley’s story is his to tell — and that it’s actually about him. In our own way, we’re also often trying to take possession of the artists we love. But owning them — or making a biopic about them — isn’t the same as understanding them.