Elvis and the Problems with Musician Biopics

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is not just a confusing movie. It evokes a very special kind of bewilderment: you know you’ve seen a really big spangly movie about a very famous man, but you’re not quite sure why.

You could say the reason is simply that the apparent subject matter is, well, Elvis. The elvis. The king. Everyone loves Elvis, or at least knows his songs. Of course he deserves a movie.

But the musicians biopic—like its cousins, the historical figures biopic, and the drama based on a true story—needs more than just a set of facts and a bunch of built-in fans to justify its existence. To put it in terms used by non-fiction writers, the events in Elvis’ life are just the situation; what a good movie tries to do is find the story in that situation. As I wrote last year: “It’s not surprising that many rockers and singers have similar life stories; what’s frustrating is the tendency to put one’s true events in chronological order and assume it’s a good story.” A great biopic doesn’t just remind us of what happened in a person’s life and the order in which it all happened. It provides new insight into the subject or uses it as a way to touch on larger themes.

Music movie makers have been trying to figure out how to do this for some time now, with some success. Bob Dylan’s 2007 Deeply Strange and Wonderful Movie I’m not here explores the subject’s many personas by casting six different actors (including Cate Blanchett and young black actor Marcus Carl Franklin) as singers. rocket man, the 2019 Elton John movie, is essentially a story about how friendship can save us from our worst demons. My favorite, the movie from 2014 Love and Mercy, on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, delves into the ways childhood trauma continues into the present; it accomplished this by flipping back and forth through time, with John Cusack and Paul Dano portraying Wilson in different eras.

All three succeed by breaking out of the trope-laden form impaled by the 2007 (great) satire Run Fast: The Story of Dewey Coxwho in turn especially mocked the (very good) Oscar-winning 2005 Johnny Cash film Walk the linerocket man, in particular manages to be great precisely because it ignores the slavish devotion to chronology of some biographical films. Rather than being a movie about Elton John’s life, it’s a jukebox musical about him, songs thrown into the story randomly where they fit into the story, rather than being forced to appear only during the periods when he wrote them.

(You may wonder, where is Bohemian Rhapsody in this list? We don’t speak of Bohemian Rhapsody

When Elvis succeeds is for two reasons. Best of all, Austin Butler, who plays The King, is spectacular in the role: electric, vulnerable, innocent, seductive, and everything else he needs to be to capture the allure of the man who is America’s core to its core. shook. (He sings all of Elvis’ own early music; for Presley’s later years, their voices are mixed.) Elvis scratching your head, but not about what made the subject so magnetic.

Austin Butler as Elvis in elvis.
Warner Bros.

The other reason is that, in the typical Luhrmann style, Elvis is propelled—almost maniacally—by Presley’s music, both in performance and as covers of contemporary artists ranging from Eminem and Stevie Nicks to Doja Cat and Kacey Musgraves. Often they are used in the style of a musical, such as when Presley, unaware that he has been signed by his manager to a five-year contract in Las Vegas, performs “Suspicious Minds” on stage in the same room. “I’m in a trap / I can’t walk out / Because I love you …” he moans, over and over, in a very literal description of what is really happening.

The relentless music makes the whole thing feel like a montage, and after a while it gets tiresome; I’ve seen it twice and both times my head was banging towards the end. But it is contagious. Like with rocket manPresley’s music is part of storytelling, not just an excuse to settle in to some familiar tunes.

Still, strange choices were made in this film. Presley’s underhand manager, the knowledgeable “snowman” (aka conman) Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks with a prosthesis, is also the narrator of the story. After Presley’s death, it was revealed that he had written off the singer huge chunks of his money, although he insists he earned it all, that we wouldn’t even have Elvis Presley if he wasn’t there. Which in a way could be true.

That makes Parker, not Presley, the deliberate framing tool for the film. We hope that Parker’s point of view would provide a new or useful angle to this view of Presley’s life and perhaps that his perspective would be unreliable. After all, he is a liar.

An image of Tom Hanks, in prosthetics and a cowboy hat, as an elderly man.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker in elvis.
Warner Bros.

But his story keeps tripping over his toes. I’m not exactly sure what Parker is doing in the narrator’s seat. He just takes a cynical tone, perhaps unintentionally, but not at all unjustly. Elvis sometimes it’s about the rise of American celebrities (with its merchandising, its corporate sponsorships, its wildly popular and toxic fans) and how it wreaks havoc on real people. Parker’s greatest genius was finding ways to leverage Elvis’ image and fame for money – selling ‘I Hate Elvis’ buttons, for example, because if you get haters you might as well make money from them .

Parker repeatedly claims to us in the audience – he repeatedly addresses ‘you’, he talks to me and you – that we are the problem. We wanted more Elvis. We wanted a certain Elvis. We coveted him. He needed our lust, our love, and that drove him to an early grave.

That’s a strong theme, but it’s messed up in execution. First, the moments when we become aware that Parker is a bit of an unreliable narrator is when the movie shows him doing what he accuses us of: wanting to squeeze every drop of money out of Elvis, making him feel loved, so that he give him what he wills, and sometimes look at him with a look of unconcealed lust (even if it is money lust). That bumps off the edge of the point he’s apparently trying to make – not that he seems to care.

But our narrator often disappears for long periods of time – a relief, as we can focus on Butler’s spectacular performance, but confusingly in the film’s schedule. And the film constantly taps into biographical details about the subject’s life in the title, from which films he starred in to Priscilla Presley’s extreme childhood when they first came together, to how things went wrong in various aspects of his career, especially towards the end. . There’s no need to cram them all in, but if you want to blow through big holes in the story, it should be to advance the big story, and it’s not clear this movie does.

In a leather jumpsuit, surrounded by admiring girls, Elvis sings into the microphone.

Austin Butler as Elvis.
Warner Bros.

More importantly, other themes emerge emphatically and without much structural logic. Parker is a traditionalist, a man who hates those “long-haired” hippies who protest wars and make social statements; Presley is a gentle man who is aware of the roots of his music in the black culture he grew up in and mourns when Martin Luther King Jr. is murdered. (Presley’s use of Black styles and songs, which mostly resulted in worldwide hits because he was white, is a prominent part of the film, although this film isn’t out to scrutinize it too closely.) The Battle of the Generations in rock ‘n’ roll becomes a theme, as does the complicated interweaving of cultures in America that takes place today; we refer again to the list of artists who contributed to the soundtrack.

But despite all this, Elvis himself remains a somewhat opaque figure, and the film’s biggest weakness is that, behind the voice and the spinning pelvis and the sequins and the sweat, it’s not that interested in him. There is no great insight to be found in his life. Elvis feeds the phenomenon it refers to: he is usually an icon, a face, something to be admired and coveted, and not really a real human being.

And yet it’s worth posting Elvis, the film, in that slowly growing list of biopics of musicians who somehow attempt to break through the long history of floundering literal, chronology-driven historical narratives. The thing with worn-out figures of speech is that we can get used to it too much, become too dependent on it. The musicians biopic isn’t even a genre – you could make one that’s a drama, or a comedy, or a mystery, or even horror, like Elvis sometimes seems to be – but it feels like one because of the tired old story beats involved.

So disconcerting those tropes, setting the biography in a new setting and using the music in innovative ways is a bold and sensible move for a filmmaker looking to make waves. Luhrmann is never afraid to make bold choices. He even blinds the Warner Bros. logo the film introduces, then brings us into the story with operatic musical cues that feel stolen by Wagner.

Of ElvisHowever, he hasn’t found the core of the story, distracted by the shiny objects everywhere and the need to generate spectacle. In its better moments, this tendency is exactly what his film regrets, or at least deems inhumane. Elvis Presley deserves a great biographical film that portrays his life through a lens as revolutionary and shocking as he was. Elvis is it not. But the king will persevere to see another day.

Elvis premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and is hitting theaters.

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