Elvis Presley


The Italian film Martin Eden ends with a rich and famous novelist from a poor background committing suicide.  The movie is based on an American novel by Jack London.  There is much in the novel that is autobiographical.   Before the good times, London had earned pittances doing tough jobs in the Klondike and at sea.  London died at 40 years of age. Old illnesses plagued him but he was also an alcoholic.   London liked to think of himself as a public intellectual.  In The Iron Heel he anticipated twentieth century totalitarianism.   Martin Eden is a criticism of individualism.  The success and fame of Eden destroys him.  London believed that failure and struggle help us feel alive and spiritual progress is made by communities and not individuals.   An overfed ego is a lonely place.  London was caught, though, between what he believed as a socialist and his own individual ambition.   He hoped for other people and disappointed himself.   Elvis is not the only musician to have been exploited.  Nor is his example of an American tragedy without precedent.  

Martin Eden and the latest movie from Baz Luhrmann are now in British cinemas.  Both Eden and Elvis endure early struggle and then experience subsequent success that leads to despair.  Martin Eden, the movie, has been hailed by one critic as a masterpiece.  Its fine elements make it essential viewing but the film lurches too abruptly from the early struggles to the later disillusionment.   Baz Luhrmann in his movie Elvis was obliged to face the same challenges as the makers of Martin Eden.  Movie biographies of a not so fictional author and perhaps not so real rock star do not have enough minutes to reveal the slow drift away from vitality that corrodes the soul.   The Italian movie sidesteps the problem.  One minute Eden is poor and the next he has aged twenty years and is rich and unhappy.  This avoidance of difficulties does not happen in Elvis.  His methods may be too mechanical for some but Luhrmann to his credit attempts to make the required connections.  

In Elvis the tragic fate of the rock star is shaped by a handful of events.  The betrayals by manager Colonel Tom Parker are specific and individual.  The consequences of these betrayals are magnified by Luhrmann for dramatic effect but that is okay.  The exaggeration compensates for the lack of cumulative destruction that Elvis would have experienced day by day.  Each of the betrayals in the movie dries the throat, and they happen well before the ending which is something else again.  I watched people walk in front of my seat and exit the cinema.  A few of the young girls had tears in their eyes.  Welcome to the Elvis family, I thought. 

Elvis devotees will spot and perhaps be shocked by the creative interventions.  Elvis did not sing Trouble at the concert in Memphis the day after his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, and neither did the concert end in a riot.  But nor does it matter.  All should acknowledge that there is a core truth in Elvis that Luhrmann grasps and others have missed.  A rock and roll star of exceptional talent and someone that the great jazz drummer Hal Blaine described as ‘the sweetest guy in the world’ was, if not destroyed, constantly frustrated and weakened by a manager with his own dangerous compulsions.

At the Cannes Film Festival the movie received a rapturous reception.  The astute Mark Kermode in the Observer gave it a heartfelt endorsement and admitted that at the end the film had him ‘crying in the chapel’.  To the surprise of no one, Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian gave the film two stars.  The Guardian is the newspaper that refused to give Elvis an obituary when he died.  Yet they had no such inhibitions when Parker headed for the big casino in the sky.  In his review of the Luhrmann film, the critic Bradshaw pulled the cheap trick of criticising Elvis for not being what he wanted, which, again no surprise, was an alternative film about Parker.  Bradshaw described the movie as looking like a trailer for a film.  This misses the point.  Elvis, like Martin Eden, is a trailer for a life.  The movie is frenetic and done in typical Luhrmann style.  No Elvis song is rendered in full.  The relentless invention and excess of Luhrmann ruined his movies Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby.   In Elvis, though, the kinetic energy helps Luhrmann and his scriptwriters load the story with information.   Even with the frantic pace the movie is obliged to leave out much of the familiar story.  Bradshaw claimed the film was not challenging but Luhrmann in Elvis has provided for critic Bradshaw and his kind the ultimate challenge.   Throughout its two and a half hours the movie insists that Elvis had unique gifts and a worth that needs to be acknowledged.  This is the challenge that Bradshaw and the cloth-eared would rather ignore.   

Imagine this, an entertainer dies at forty two years of age and a decade later a court rules that his manager was guilty of bad practices and exploitation.   And then think of all the people that have merely seen the fatal victim as a figure of fun, someone that has inspired in too many tastemakers feelings of superiority.  We have to wonder why so many have resisted responding to the tragedy.   It appears that the existence of Elvis has threatened a lot more people than the conservatives of the 1950s.   Working class artists are allowed to have talent but God help them if they disagree with their betters on taste.

Luhrmann does flatter Elvis but this is because the musical sequences are so memorable and Parker, even with many of his misdeeds missing from the narrative, more than qualifies as a villain.   Subtle is not a word associated with Luhrmann but perhaps in identifying the flaws of Elvis the film is too subtle or manipulative.  Claims of a whitewashed Elvis, though, are nonsense.  You have to be a dope to leave the cinema without realising his limitations.  Elvis was a poor husband, addicted to pills and too timid and naive to qualify as a genuine hero.  If you have to be superior and callous then go ahead, call him weak and stupid.  It is not mentioned in the film but, because of his childhood poverty, Elvis was the only kid in his class that went to school in overalls.  If that does not leave someone with imposter syndrome, nothing will.

The script has lines of dialogue that are direct quotes of what we know Elvis said on certain occasions.  There is an attempt at fidelity.   The film has been criticised for lacking an emotional core. The scenes between Elvis and Priscilla are underwritten but a lot of story has to be crammed in.  The separation scene between them is the weakest in the movie.  Near the end of the film Elvis hands over Lisa Marie to Priscilla.  This scene, though, has real pathos.  Movie scenes of Elvis and his mother usually make me cringe but Helen Thomson as Gladys for once makes her character and the relationship with her son believable.   The glory, though, goes to Austin Butler.  No one has done Elvis better.  In an odd way his brilliance and commitment to the role evoke the achievement of Heath Ledger in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight.  Tom Hanks is a good choice as Parker because there is something in the actor that attracts affection.  Hanks persuades us that the bad behaviour of Parker is a consequence of his own needs rather than a desire to abuse.  Unlike the performances of the African American musicians the 1950s musical numbers by Elvis are a little undersold if still impressive.  This is more than compensated by the sledgehammer force of the 1968 TV Special and the early concerts in Las Vegas.   The movie reminds us that the initial brilliance of Elvis in Vegas has been too easily forgotten.

At his Vegas press conference Elvis introduces Fats Domino to the press as the true king of rock and roll.  Over the final credits we also hear Elvis quote from the Hank Williams song Men With Broken Hearts.   Elvis may have made mistakes about the motives of politicians and swallowed some imperialist guff but his instincts were egalitarian and they prohibited racism.  And it is good to see that being acknowledged.  Cineastes will like the various movie references.  There are at least three to the movies of Orson Wells plus a nod to the very dark Nightmare Alley.  The shots of the audience reacting to the debut of Elvis on the Louisiana Hayride are similar to the  Hitchcockian montage used in the petrol station scene in The Birds. The voice over by Hanks as the deceased Parker limps through a Vegas casino echoes Fred McMurray in the classic Billy Wilder film noir, Double Indemnity.

Some time ago a programme on British TV had an interview with a young, educated and articulate Elvis fan.  He was asked why he liked so much an entertainer that had died before he was born.  ‘You either get Elvis or you don’t.  If you don’t, there’s no point explaining it.  It’s either in you or it’s not.’  The Luhrmann movie Elvis might not be remembered as a classic but my hunch is that over time critical opinion will move towards Kermode rather than Bradshaw.  In his review Kermode stated that the film had been made by someone ‘that knows Elvis’.  I prefer the less elegant phrase of the young fan.  Luhrmann ‘gets Elvis’.  The director has said that the more he read about Elvis the more he liked the man.   Maybe Hal Blaine was exaggerating and Elvis was not quite the sweetest guy in the world but, because of his thwarted potential, he deserves a hell of a lot more respect and sympathy than he has had from some.   Luhrmann not only gets Elvis.   Until now his movie Elvis is for those sympathetic to the man as good as it gets.

Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His book on Elvis is called Long After This and is available here.  The quick can get a Kindle edition for free.